Chomsky Warns Big Data Tech Will Be Used For Bad Purposes
By Robert Westervelt
November 15, 2013
Big data projects have the potential to be extremely valuable to a wealth of individuals from scientists exploring ways to cure cancer to urban planners trying to curb crime, but the potential of mining vast stores of information for the better good could be overshadowed by its misuse by governments or businesses that believe they have good intentions.
That was the message from Barton Gellman, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winning author and reporter who is one of three journalists still pouring over National Security Agency documents leaked by Edward Snowden, and American linguist, philosopher and activist Noam Chomsky. The two men were part of a panel discussion at Engaging Data 2013, a program exploring the benefits and risks of big data projects.
"Any system of power -- whether it is the state, or Google or Amazon -- is going to try and use the best available technology to control and dominate and maximize their power," Chomsky said, calling for transparency and action, adding the words of conservative political scientist Samuel Huntington, who said, "Power remains strong when it remains in the dark; exposed to the sunlight it begins to evaporate."
The daylong event was sponsored by Senseable City Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Academics at MIT are exploring the impact of sensors and hand-held electronics. Scientists believe bringing together vast amounts of data -- from location information collected by cell phone carriers to electricity usage at city skyscrapers -- could yield clues and potential breakthroughs. The process of properly collecting, storing and analyzing the information is a tedious one that could lead to dangers.
Gellman, who is writing a book on the rise of the surveillance-industrial state, said the government officials he has interviewed, both publicly and privately, truly believe they are protecting the public. The officials believe the techniques being used to conduct surveillance wouldn't be understood by the public, and the risk of opposition has forced them to find ways to keep politics and the legal system out of the often-murky intelligence-gathering process, Gellman said.
"The principal way and place where opposition comes is that they don't want you to know about things," Gellman said. "They're afraid that you might call it off."
The NSA revelations, which have been slowly emerging over a series of news leaks in recent months, are likely to have broad implications on technology sales and services, solution providers told CRN, but many admit that the full impact is still anyone's guess.
While the leaks continue to emerge, the first signs of any backlash may have come this week from Cisco Systems, which is taking a hit from Wall Street following a bleak second-quarter outlook. Cisco executives told the Wall Street Journal this week that Chinese customers may be cutting purchases of U.S. tech gear in response to U.S. restrictions on Chinese companies and NSA surveillance revelations.
Both Chomsky and Gellman said the NSA leaks are the first step in shedding light on the activity and giving the public the ability to determine how far the government should go to gather intelligence under the idea that the activity will thwart terrorist attacks. Gellman's latest report described the extent to which the NSA went to gather information  and thwart oversight of its activity. The leaked Snowden documents revealed that the agency, along with its British counterpart the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), tapped directly into the communication lines that run between Google and Yahoo to gather data and potentially view information on millions of people globally including Americans.
"Information and transparency also allows regulation to be properly debated," Gellman said. "We can try and draw boundaries and hopefully have meaningful checks and balances, so if they cross it, someone will see it, something will be said and it can be stopped."
Gellman said that he was still pouring through the data. Snowden, he said, was not directing his coverage. The documents offer clues to the often-complex processes taking place, and those clues offer only fragments of the true inner workings of the NSA's global surveillance program, Gellman said. Tracking down exactly what they all mean has led to a lot of dead ends, he said.
"Fundamentally, I'm making my own judgments about what I think is important and going through complex material," Gellman said. "The documents are far from complete and often offer clues to things, and often I get the clues wrong."
Gellman said that the NSA revelations could help the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Freedom Foundation, two groups that have filed lawsuits challenging the legality of the NSA's call collection program. Lawsuits challenging the legitimacy of such programs had previously been thrown out of court, he said, because no one could prove they were being spied on.
"Now the government has acknowledged that it does collect all call records," Gellman said "Now the case and cases like it are going up through the federal system, so a federal court will hopefully be able to reach a decision to the legitimacy of this kind of surveillance."