Commentary
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.

The Natural Language Processing libraries allow systems to do that work on a massive scale. They look for red-flag words and help decipher meaning. And before you let your sci-fi imagination run away, it's not that sophisticated. Regardless of what you saw on Person of Interest, the kind of artificial intelligence that should scare you is decades away.

Finding meaning in text (even crudely!) is important because of the unimaginable scale of data that needs to be mined. We're not talking about mountains of data. That analogy is so 1986. Today's data mountains are like turducken: mountains within mountains within mountains. Deep fried.

There's no manual exercise that will help.

And that exact data blindness is how the FBI missed the story of Zacarias Moussaoui and his flight school in the suburbs of Minneapolis. Prism might have helped.

I say "might" because technology is anything but infallible. All code is fragile and buggy. But rest assured that technology, unlike humans, lacks ill intent. It's not out to get you. A system like Prism doesn't give a rat's ass about your conversations with your mom or lover.

And even if you were talking about bombing at the local open mic night, it wouldn't be a red flag unless you also happened to be chatting it up with a known terrorist. Without the intersection of the graph and NLP, there'd be too many red flags for law enforcement to pursue.

So statistically speaking, that ridiculous secret of yours --the one that no one but you cares about but the one you don't want the government to know about -- is safe. Hallelujah.

And that brings me to my four favorite words: You are not special.

The people working at the NSA don't care about your dumb life or your stupid fetish. They didn't take government pay so they could read your banal emails or listen to your limp conversations. They care about stopping bad guys. And quickly.

If you're afraid that they'll overreach and start listening to your calls or reading your emails, get over yourself. How embarrassing for you that your narcissism is your defining quality.

As for Edward Snowden …

He's not a hero. He's an attention whore.

And he's not a technologist, or he would've figured out what Prism is really capable of.

I even question whether he was working alone. I'm not a fan of conspiracy theories, but the whole thing smells like what would happen if a group of monied interests -- the vendors who sold the systems to the government -- needed to explain why their systems weren't operating as well as they should. A leak would relieve them of any responsibility (i.e., the reason our system isn't working is because everyone knows about it).

I'll leave that scenario to be fleshed out by John Grisham. Although to be fair, Daniel Suarez would be the better choice.

Here's what scares me ...

If the government wanted to snoop on you, it wouldn't need state-of-the-art predictive analytics. It wouldn't need the world's top minds to innovate around how to find needles in the big data haystack. It wouldn't even need any tech developed after the 1890s. It could just get a wiretap order from any judge and then give some much-needed overtime to that poor guy trapped in the '70s who's sweating it out in the flowered van outside your house.

If you want to fix a problem, fix everything wrong with that last sentence.

The right conversation to have as a nation -- between now and when Skynet achieves self-awareness -- is how to balance our civil liberties with emerging technologies that allow law enforcement officials to deal with the turduckens of data that they have to eat through.

The possibility of another attack doesn't scare me. It's inevitable, and that's not Dick Cheney talking (I wish he wouldn't). That's statistics.

What scares me is that the polemics around Prism will distract the nation from our sorry state of analytics, the craptastic tools that we hand to our police and intelligence communities. If we're not willing to invest in the most-promising and -sophisticated software tools and platforms, we might as well replace law enforcement with paramedics and drones -- the left's and right's answer to how to clean up the mess.

The civil liberties crowd, which I oddly consider myself a part of, needs to stop pretending to be outraged by Prism and spend that energy on evolving our standards to better account for technological advancement.

Neither side wins if the media freak show slows or stops the refinement of technologies without which our nation will continue to operate data blind.

Eyes wide open ...

I'm not trying to trap you in some difficult moral dilemma. There's no ticking bomb on a bus. Your mother isn't on that bus. And you don't have to choose whether to torture someone potentially innocent to save Mom.

Theoretical constructs are a waste of time. So, too, is the process of manually getting a known terrorist's phone records and then getting the records of everyone he called and so on and so on. And then manually constructing that picture.

Technology can and should help. And it doesn't have to trash civil liberties.

Let's quit trying to scare each other and figure out how.

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