Gradual Epiphany

Phone Record Furor

There has been a lot written lately about the NSA program which constructs social networks based on phone call activity (internationally and otherwise). Listening to NPR during this afternoon’s drive home, I was struck by the “average Joe” reaction that seemed to dominate people’s reactions. People in general were ok with the government getting/reviewing their phone records, so long as it was related to an active investigation. Otherwise, they were really bothered by the idea of the government listening in on their chats with Aunt Tilly. This reaction struck me as odd and a little inconsistent.

If we endorse a program that permits the gov’t to spy on citizens of this nation, how exactly do we know just who needs to be spied upon? I suppose you could say that there has to be other evidence to justify opening the phone records, but that approach ignores a single, crucial data source — the phone records. My guess is that the gov’t would like to start with phone records and then use those to bootstrap more specific investigations. Speaking from a strictly developer/problem solver standpoint, you always start an investigation in the areas where the most information is available. You always start with a model that fits known information and then gather new information and re-adjust the model in reaction. It’s all very Bayesian.

So, most people can appreciate the governments desire to use phone records — it’s an awesome, powerful data source that could (and likely has) bootstrap investigations into suspicious persons. What can’t be reconciled, however, is how to protect the good guys from undue invasion of privacy. This is where I am disappointed by our government. If you’re looking for patterns in data, it doesn’t have to necessarily be the raw data — second-order representations of data (if used properly) will still reflect the patterns. In other words, I could be much more in favor of this program if they had (or at least, purported to) demonstrated a respect for my privacy by hashing all the phone numbers, and then only when a suspicious pattern was found obtained a court warrant to investigate further. Even that approach has its problems, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Ultimately, the furor over the phone records is warranted, I think. Sometimes, democracy can be a little melodramatic, but it’s the drama that keeps people engaged and balancing in their government.