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Ever since I saw the call records story breaking this morning I've been sitting here with a very visceral visual of exactly what Big Brother knows about me.

See, what I do for a living is, I study gene networks, and specifically methods for monitoring what changes in a network of genetic and biochemical interactions when a perturbation is introduced.  We use a lot of graph theory and network analysis in this field.  I'm a data miner by trade, although my focus is mostly on cleaning up the signal so others can mine it more effectively, because of course, in networks, errors add up and false connections are made and you get the wrong answer, which means (in biology) that you waste time pursuing irrelevant leads.

So when I think of what a database of all of our call histories looks like I get the heebie jeebies.  Because I know with a fair degree of certainty what kind of connections they can look for in that data, and what kinds of events they can flag.  With these records, they know who you call, they know when you call them (and can maintain a history that stretches over years) and they know exactly where you call them from.

  • Big Brother knows everyone that you care about.  Not just your family of birth but your family of choice.

  • Big Brother knows who all your friends are, and who their friends are, and friends of their friends.  He knows when you make a new friend, and he knows when you stop talking to someone.  He knows when that friend you haven't heard from in years suddenly turns up in your life.  Big Brother knows that after you got that call from that old friend, your social network lit up with calls back and forth to other old friends to exchange hot gossip.

  • Big Brother knows when you're making personal cell phone calls from work.  He knows which way you drive home, if you're making calls from your car on the way.

  • Big Brother knows that you know a guy who knows a guy.  Say, for instance, you call a friend a lot and that friend calls a guy who gets busted for dealing drugs.  Big Brother knows that you called your friend and then your friend called his dealer and that this happened to happen in that sequence several Friday nights in a row.

  • Big Brother knows when you're calling your illicit lover to arrange an assignation, and he knows when you call your wife from the hotel room to tell her you're working late.

  • Big Brother knows when you call that guy you were dating who blew you off and just as quickly hang up the phone.

  • Big Brother knows when you went on a trip, where you went, who you called while you were away and when you got back.  Big Brother also knows who takes care of your pets while you're gone.

I'm sure there's many more examples of patterns that we could define. But the point is: it's absolutely unprecedented in history for a government to have that kind of detailed knowledge of its citizens' connections and the patterns of their private lives. It brings a whole new level of 'total' to the word 'totalitarian'.

With the start and end time of a phone call, the identities of the originator and receiver (easily mined from other less-secure sources even if the telcos strip them off what they sell to the government), and the cell phone tower location, literally any pattern of associations among people, businesses, places and times can be mined out if there's a smart geek at the data mining end who knows how to formulate the pattern as a query.  And your node may not have identifying information attached to it, but it may be associated through a pattern with a node that does -- someone who has somehow gotten on the radar, say, by being rounded up at an anti-war rally or registered to vote as a Democrat or busted for holding a small amount of pot.

The reason that this thing has got me so disturbed today is that I am a smart geek, and I could formulate that query and direct a programmer to implement it, much as I direct students to implement queries in a genomic database.  I have the imagination, and the training in looking for patterns in data, to understand how such information could and would be used.  In the world of database queries, if you can dream it (formulate the criteria) you can do it.

Sure, the power to know such things seems innocuous.  But if you wouldn't trust the Chinese government under Mao with information about who the friend you love to talk to most actually is, then you shouldn't trust your own government.  The power to use those connections just needs to be animated by a small amount of will to use them wrongfully and, as I read somewhere else today, you could be stripped of your rights as an American faster than you can say Padilla.

We need to find a way to bring home to non-geeks what the power of such a database can be, to take it out of the realm of geekiness and show how easily it could be used to attach consequences to seemingly innocuous actions and patterns.  People should be madder than hell about this.  It should drive George Bush's approval rating into the negative numbers.

For medical data, to use that data for research, we have to meet elaborate standards under HIPAA to strip any personally identifying information off the data. What we need is a HIPAA for communications and consumer data. Force the corporations to file off the serial numbers on the information they track about our lives. Let the corporations mine our purchasing and resource use patterns for trends all they want, but let them not connect those trends to individuals unless a warrant is issued to connect the abstract to the individual.

Originally posted to kismet on Thu May 11, 2006 at 10:05 AM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  There's a good network study (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    AllisonInSeattle, kraant, kurt

    That was published some time ago with social networks in a high school (friends, hook ups and so forth).  You could instantly see who the girls were that "got around," how inbred a given clique was and so forth.  This is just a simple application, but it could be illustrative.

  •  the idea of the Bush administration adhering (4+ / 0-)

    to strict HIPAA standards makes me laugh out of frustration.  Of course, the idea of the Bush administration adhering to any standards is laughable in itself.

    jotter's Lists of High Impact Diaries: daily and weekly archives (bring your own bendy straws)

    by sele on Thu May 11, 2006 at 10:57:06 AM PDT

  •  Great diary (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    OLinda, AllisonInSeattle, kraant

    I recommended it because it's such a stark illustration of why this is over the line, no matter how the Bush administration tries to split hairs about legality.

  •  What we need (4+ / 0-)

    is one of those sensationalist, panicky, exploitative, over-the-top TV movies of the week showing ordinary innocent Americans getting burned by this spying.

    The script almost writes itself.

    But of course, They would never allow it to be broadcast...

    •  You are exactly right... (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      The trouble is that most people don't "get it" - and won't until you have a simplified plot line that shows it.  Right now people hear the Liar-In-Chief talking about how "we aren't listening into the content of your calls" and figure hey it's no big deal.  What kills me is the 'base' who say, "I'm not doing anything wrong so I've got nothing to hide or worry about"; they're the same people who scream about how you can't trust the government to do anything right.  

      I'm thinking something like a nice Red-State extended family from the Midwest co-ordinating a trip to Disney World - maybe casting one of the Gilmore Girls as Grandma and Wilford Brimley as Grandpa, and having the NSA infer a terrorist attack on another "american icon" from their call traffic.  A couple of chuckle-headed Barney Fifes put on their DHS badges, and abduct the family as they converge in a Motel 6 somewhere in Georgia before heading to Orlando.  Before you know it, Dad and Mom are headed for Gitmo, and the shock causes Grandma and Grandpa to have debilitating strokes.  The 1/10th of an ounce of weed big brother was carrying is now fair game, of course, and he's bundled off to the Georgia correctional system, as an adult since he's 17 and that's close enough.  Sis goes into foster care where she gets sexually abused since there's no budget for liberal social programs like Child get the picture...

      Yah, you're right, it'd never get broadcast...though they did make the Bird Flu hack-job.

      •  Very good! (0+ / 0-)

        Like, I said, it writes itself.

        And it wouldn't be just that family.  There would be, say, six individuals/families that get their lives torn apart by Big Brother.

        • the up and coming right-wing attorney with the pretty , blond, pregnant wife, who suddenly finds himself out of a job with no explanation and none of his influential friends will take his calls or go to bat for him, and he's just bought that big house and...
        • the respected divorced professional woman, piller of her church, mother of three high-achieving teens, who has coffee with the wrong blind date one day and suddenly finds she can't get on a plane and no college will accept her brilliant son...
        • the elderly diabetic man with the artificial hip and the same name as somebody "on the list" who gets stuck in an airport security room for too many hours without his insulin while his family frantically tries to locate him ...
        • and so on ...
  •  Excellent Diary (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    BurnetO, AllisonInSeattle, kraant

    This has been bouncing around in my head for some time, and I'm glad to see it put into such perfect wording by someone who knows how dangerously valuable data mining can be.

    It can be used to 'drill down' into any behavior that  can be queried, and our diarist put it in perfectly concrete terms with the above examples.

    Damn this administration, and damn those that support them.

    We really do need a March on Washington. Millions needs to be there. Shut this country down for a day or so. Clog K Street so you can't move.

    Of course, that's when they'll break out the bioweapon spray guns.


    From the fools gold mouthpiece
    The hollow horn plays wasted words

  •  As a career data analyst myself (6+ / 0-)

    I know how damn frightening this is.

    This kind of power, from every American with a phone (or internet) connection is plain frightening.  Add to phone conversations a surely in the works plan to grab much more accessible internet traffic and you get a frightening scenario where you can target a single dissident and find EVERY SINGLE co-dissident in his network easily and effectively.  Major amounts of legwork in sniffing out dissident networks would be eliminated, and targeted surveillance towards the influentials in the networks could be easily established.

    The government will have at it's fingertips complete records of our electronic communications, and all of our habits associated therein.  If I can track whether or not a business is in financial difficulty or moving toward negatice cash flow from an AR database, I can imagine what these phone records can do.

    And what's worse, are all the damn false positives that something like this will produce.  Even if you take the truly stupid position of "I have nothing ot hide" you still run into the problem of "Well, you look like you do" and will be shipped off to the next gulag in a heartbeat.

    God DAMN it.  For years, conservatives were HARPING about shrinking the "liberal" government's "totalitarian" control, yet not a DAMN peep about massive data mining and spying?!

    CHRIST, they talk about angry liberals.  Frankly, even the conservative bits left in me are freaking furious over this.

  •  a new era in social engineering (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    BurnetO, AllisonInSeattle, kraant, kurt

    All those lovely lessons from network theory...  Some folks are working on how to build damage-resistant networks, others are working on how to efficiently undermine those networks, others modeling them, drawing general conclusions...  And so much of the stuff that works with computers and genes and ecosystems and power grids and so forth works with social networks too.  

    And here's this social network known as US.  If you want to perturb, or stabilize, or decouple sections of the network, well then what better way than to observe which nodes are important and what functions they fulfill.  

  •  After HIPPA, PIPPA (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Exactly! Like HIPPA, call it PIPPA, Personal Information Privacy and Portability Act securing a subset of already protected HIPPA data - demographics (e.g., name, address, SSN). Include biometric data as well (e.g., voice, face, fingerprints).  

    The portability legislation would provide a legal framework for using or not using RFID, prevent any unauthorized transfer of citizens' identifying data, regulate all identity data access.  

    Congress is responsible to establish a legal infrastructure to defend Americans from all internal and external threats.  

  •  Does anyone want to know how deep the hole is? (9+ / 0-)

    Shit, do we all think this stops at the phone companies?  How hard would it be for them to issue the exact same "we need this for national security" line of bullshit to a couple credit card companies and have not just your call log, but also your purchase log.  Oh yeah, and don't forget that they can tell what you're reading at the library, and of course even the sites you are visiting and people you are E-mailing.  Imagine the possibilities listed above so clearly by kismet, but with a lot more cross-checking and some even more exotic possibilities. It's mind boggling, but I would bet this goes far deeper than just our phone records...

    •  No doubt (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      That's what the TIA was about -- it's not believable that the program, while "shut down" under that name, (yeahright), was actually abandoned entirely.

      It's the "anti-fear-propaganda" solution: positive news: HeroicStories, free

      by AllisonInSeattle on Thu May 11, 2006 at 11:36:32 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  Oh, absolutely (4+ / 0-)
      Your credit card records, your medical records (because you can bet those insurance companies want to get around confidentiality so they can ding you for being sick), your grocery store purchase history (used an affinity card lately), but also some things you may not even think about.

      For instance, you know how some currency may soon have RFID tags?  Think about what that implies.  You can't go off the grid, because someone could basically wave a RFID scanner at you and find out exactly WHICH bills you're carrying.

      I'm a biologist and for me data mining is a cool science toy, but believe me, those methods were not developed for scientific purposes.

      "Fishin' Accomplished" -- George W. Bush

      by kismet on Fri May 12, 2006 at 03:26:35 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  It's The Matrix (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    gogol, AllisonInSeattle, kraant

    "We need to find a way to bring home to non-geeks what the power of such a database can be, to take it out of the realm of geekiness and show how easily it could be used to attach consequences to seemingly innocuous actions and patterns.  People should be madder than hell about this.  It should drive George Bush's approval rating into the negative numbers."

    The masses grok The Matrix.  And the metaphor isn't so far off the truth.  Bush is data mining The Matrix.  

    Thank you for the awesome diary.

    Lincoln said it; Bush proves it: "...but you can't fool all the people all the time." Are these men the GOP's bookends?

    by Quicklund on Thu May 11, 2006 at 10:40:16 PM PDT

  •  Thank you (0+ / 0-)

    Very informative. What I assumed, but verified by a qualified expert.

    It's the "anti-fear-propaganda" solution: positive news: HeroicStories, free

    by AllisonInSeattle on Thu May 11, 2006 at 11:32:03 PM PDT

  •  HELP IMPEACH HERE (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:


    Keep the pressure on Congress... Talking about impeachment wakes people up... They question, it's a strong motivator to get people thinking. It also lets Congress know how intense the dissapproval is for this President... They seem to be a little slow on the uptake. So please:

    1. Sign petitions if you have not done so
    1. Send a letter to Congress (both Senators & House rep)
    1. Send a copy to the media
    1. Enlist friends and family to help, ask them to chip in time
    1. Spread the link around, email it (with a request to forward) post it on a blog, or in the comments of a news story.

    Help out!!!

    Thanks :)

  •  A minor correction...and hope (0+ / 0-)

    A presumption in such data mining is that the data are non-sentient to the analysis, non-aware, non-reactive, even friendly.

    You've gone and broken that assumption.

    Could it be that the solution to the problem is lots of random calls, more or less random perusal of the Internet. All the symptoms of ADD. Some weird key words. A toxic sig to poison the iterative data screen?

    Can you imagine being  required to figure out what a person of extremely short attention span is thinking or planning?

    This is, of course, why text messaging planning of flash mobs is so hard to stop: by the time you mine your data, the event is gone.

    How'd you like to data mine my responses to these diaries?

    I'm sure you have corrections to my questions. Please feel free to give solutions to the questions, so I can dream up solutions to your solutions. I also read /.

    Bomb. Kill. Assassinate. Rifle. Plan. Go to and hide.

    Evolutionary/cognitive science seminar at YearlyKos? It's how we work politically.

    by ormondotvos on Fri May 12, 2006 at 12:42:20 AM PDT

  •  Excellent (0+ / 0-)

    Thank you! You analysis has allowed me to look at this issue from a much clearer perspective. I knew that I was upset by illegal wiretapping but, until now, I didn't really understand, in practical terms, what reason I had to be so upset. This was very valuable indeed.

    This diary should be reposted until more people have seen it!

  •  I have some great ideas (0+ / 0-)

    Let's get DNA samples from EVERYONE. It would make law enforcement so much easier and less expensive. A hair or cigarette butt from any crime scene would immediately ID the perp.

    Let's implement a high-tech National ID Card program, which cards will be encoded with this DNA information. The perfect answer to issues around airport security, illegal employment of undocumented immigration, and whether someone is entitled to access to schools or emergency rooms.

    Let's give the government ALL credit card and bank account information. This database could be mined to gain useful information about terrorist activities.

    Let's do away with the need for warrants to search homes and businesses - the extra effort involved just wastes time and ties the hands of law enforcement.

    Before you punch that troll-rate button, RELAX - I'm being ironic here. The point is that there are a lot of ways to make law enforcement more efficient, but they haven't been implemented because they are unconstitutional - as the Rabid Right has historically been the first to point out. The meme here is NOT that Bush collected our phone records - it's that Bush ILLEGALLY collected our phone records.

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