Why Prism Is The Right Investment - InformationWeek

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7/8/2013
07:10 PM
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Why Prism Is The Right Investment

Let's not get distracted as a nation from the real problem: our sorry state of analytics.

Prism doesn't scare me.

On 9/11, my office was on the 39th floor of One World Trade. I was one of the many nameless people you saw on the news running from the towers as they collapsed.

But the experience didn't turn me into a hawk. In fact, I despise the talking heads who frame Prism as the price we pay for safety. And not just because they're fear-mongering demagogues.

I hate them because I'm a technologist and they're giving technology a bad name.

Let's start with the basics.

[ Meet IBM's "Engagement Advisor," a computer that can take customer complaints. Read Watson Gets Call Center Job. ]

What is Prism? If you're the vendor that sold it to the National Security Agency, Prism is a proprietary black box that applies state-of-the-art predictive analytics to big data to infer relationships between known terrorists and their social networks. That's marketing jargon, so let's break it down.

Note that the only thing proprietary in that last paragraph is the vendor's hokey sales pitch. Everything mentioned there can be built with open-source tools, specifically a scalable distributed graph such as Neo4j and some natural language processing (NLP) libraries from Stanford University. So if you're in government IT or purchasing, don't buy the vendor BS.

First, the graph ...

In theory, every person in the world can be a node on a graph. And every communication between two people is just a relationship between those two unique nodes. So if you were able to compel Verizon and every carrier in the world to give you their complete call records, you could create the world's largest game of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.

Supplement those phone records (as the thing that connects two people) with emails, instant messages, known aliases and financial transactions, and your ability to infer relationships dramatically improves.

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That, by the way, is the same kind of inference engine that companies such as Amazon use to figure out which products to suggest you buy. It's a more sophisticated way of asking if you want fries with that. Only in this case, instead of advancing commercialism, law enforcement gets to quickly determine the social networks of known terrorists.

This isn't some dystopian Minority Reports-like future. This is good old-fashioned policing supplemented by technology. Instead of manually sifting through phone records and drawing lines on a whiteboard between grainy pictures of suspects (a la every serial killer movie you've ever seen), the NSA is using a graphing engine.

And for the best reason possible: to speed up the narrowing of the search.

Next, the NLP ...

So now you know who's communicating with whom. How can you make sense of content: the billions of hours of real-time voice and email exchanges between people? You certainly don't want to hire tens of millions of analysts to listen, translate and raise their hands whenever someone that's two degrees away from some blind sheikh uses the word jihad.

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Michael Endler
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Michael Endler,
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7/18/2013 | 4:59:25 PM
re: Why Prism Is The Right Investment
I think the "you are not special" point is valid, but that it also glosses over some of the things that make PRISM troubling. Statistically, the likelihood that the NSA is specifically targeting an InformationWeek reader is pretty low. But for the average citizen to say, "I'm not special because the government is too busy chasing bad guys" presumes that a) the government is good at differentiating good guys and bad guys, and b) that the government defines "bad" the way the rest of us do. In the current administration, maybe these assumptions are valid. But government agencies haven't always draw the right line between radical rhetoric and legitimate extremism (examples range from the targeting of Black Panthers decades ago, to whether DHS had any business monitoring Occupy protestors, to the current debate over whistle-blowing vs. national security). There's also the lack of oversight in a program like PRISM (e.g. a secret court that never says "no" isn't how most people would define "oversight"). I don't think something like PRISM is inherently wrong, per se, but even if we assume the government is only interested in "bad guys," such simple assumptions can still become messy in practice.
Thomas Claburn
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Thomas Claburn,
User Rank: Author
7/16/2013 | 7:41:03 PM
re: Why Prism Is The Right Investment
Your assertion that Prism doesn't scare you would be more credible if you weren't writing under a pseudonym.

Analytics matter if you have terrorist buy-in. But I'd bet they're not giving up much these days using phones or the Internet. While intelligence agencies would benefit from better needle-in-haystack software, I would rather see investment in the development of human intelligence assets, not to mention improvements in internal security procedures.
D. Henschen
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D. Henschen,
User Rank: Author
7/15/2013 | 5:42:18 PM
re: Why Prism Is The Right Investment
I'm with you, Coverlet, on many people getting excessively worked up about Prism. They see only black and white in a world full of gray. I do have a different take on the underlying technology. Here's my column on NSA's Accumulo system: http://ubm.io/12jwDfh
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