Prism Exposed: Data Surveillance with Global Implications

By , Holger Stark and Jonathan Stock

Photo Gallery: High-Tech Spies at the NSA Photos
AP

Part 2: Information Overload?

It is now clear that what experts suspected for years is in fact true -- that the NSA monitors every form of electronic communication around the globe. This fact raises an important question: How can an intelligence agency, even one as large and well-staffed as the NSA with its 40,000 employees, work meaningfully with such a flood of information?

The answer to this question is part of a phenomenon that is currently a major topic for the business community as well and goes by the name "Big Data." Thanks to new database technologies, it is now possible to connect entirely disparate forms of data and analyze them automatically.

A rare glimpse into what intelligence services can do by applying this "big data" approach came last year from David Petraeus. This new form of data analysis is concerned with discovering "non-obvious relationships," the then freshly minted CIA director explained at a conference. This includes, for example "finding connections between a purchase here, a phone call there, a grainy video, customs and immigration information."

The goal, according to Petraeus, is for big data to "lead to automated discovery, rather than depending on the right analyst asking the right question." Algorithms pick out connections automatically from the unstructured sea of data they trawl. "The CIA and our intelligence community partners must be able to swim in the ocean of 'Big Data.' Indeed, we must be world class swimmers -- the best, in fact," the CIA director continued.

The Surveillance State

The value of big data analysis for US intelligence agencies can be seen in the amount the NSA and CIA are investing in it. Not only does this include multimillion-dollar contracts with providers specializing in data mining services, but the CIA also invests directly, through its subsidiary company In-Q-Tel, in several big data start-ups.

It's about rendering people and their behavior predictable. The NSA's research projects aim to forecast, on the basis of telephone data and Twitter and Facebook posts, when uprisings, social protests and other events will occur. The agency is also researching new methods of analysis for surveillance videos with the hopes of recognizing conspicuous behavior before an attack is committed.

Gus Hunt, the CIA's chief technology officer, made a forthright admission in March: "We fundamentally try to collect everything and hang onto it forever." What he meant by "everything," Hunt also made clear: "It is really very nearly within our grasp to be able to compute on all human-generated information," he said.

That statement is difficult to reconcile with the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution, which guarantees the right to privacy. This is probably why Hunt added, almost apologetically: "Technology in this world is moving faster than government or law can keep up."

Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein

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1. Obama spying
maus99 06/10/2013
Are the people in EUROPE finally beginning to see what a LIAR Obama is ? Does anyone over there ever wonder WHERE this guy came from? Do you ever wonder about his college records? Why is everything such a secret with Obama, when he promised us he would have the most TRANSPARENT GOVERNMENT we have ever had. HE IS A LIAR ! ! PERIOD !
2. No Surprises Here
bowlweevils 06/10/2013
Much of the basic technology that allows the internet to exist was developed or funded by the US intelligence agencies and the military. Much of the basic technology for computers were developed by British, Polish, and American intelligence agencies and the military. Now we find out that those types of agencies are using the technologies they developed for the purposes the developed it. Not a surprise. GIS was also developed in a similar manner. Don't be surprised when you find out that the US government is using satellites to spy on you.
3. Merkel's response
spon-facebook-1163175301 06/10/2013
Beyond expressing indignation, what exactly is Germany able or willing to do about this? How about the EU? How about ordinary Germans? What good will turning out one government for another one do? Is there any way to stop Big Brother? Does everyone just get embarrassed and indignant and then change the subject?
4. Alternative Internet
hkvseebach 06/10/2013
With a view toward these latest transgressions against civil liberties it is past time for Liberals, Greens, Pirates, and any and every one of us opposed to the erosion of freedom and liberty as spearheaded by the USA in recent years to actively seek and search for alternatives to the existing internet structures. We may not be able to stop existing practices, but we can make surveillance far more difficult and, of course, expensive. Europe as a whole, as the last surviving bastion of civil liberties, may also want to look at legal limitations on US snooping and possible internet alternatives, such as European-based mail services providers, etc.. Cooperation with Russia or China may be advisable, though we may just exchange one devil for another, but at least we would then have more than one to choose from - freedom of choice is what this whole thing is about!
5. Big brother
barchen36 06/10/2013
Maybe now the rest of the world, non islamic, will finally see what is going on.... Everyone - outside of the United States - thinks that he walks above the water and tells G*d what to do. WAKE UP, Germany has been through this before, only this time there might not be any nations left that can save your tail!
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