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Chomsky, Gellman talk Big Data at MIT Conference

Nov 15, 20139 mins
Application SecurityBig DataData and Information Security

Famed philsopher and journalist discuss Big Data, who's to blame for its weaknesses, and what it means for our future

Big Data is arguably the biggest buzz term in security today, so it came as no surprise that Noam Chomsky and Barton Gellman had no shortage of words on the subject during their opening panel at MIT’s Engaging Data 2013 Conference.

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During the panel, which was moderated by The Economist’s Ludwig Siegele, Chomsky and Gellman extolled the potential virtues and derided the flaws of the various powers that be – ranging from service providers to government institutions – having such a comprehensive collection of our data. Chomsky, for one, could recognize the shortsighted usefulness of Big Data, but suggested that greater problems lie beyond that.

“Big Data is a step forward,” said Chomsky. “But our problems are not lack of access to data, but understanding them. [Big Data] is very useful if I want to find out something without going to the library, but I have to understand it, and that’s the problem.”

Gellman – who has firsthand experience with Big Data thanks to his reporting on leaked classified documents on the NSA provided to him by Edward Snowden – seemed more convinced of the practical benefits of Big Data in theory, but argued that the real trouble with it is the “vastly increased prospects of surveillance.” To that point, he touched on the fact that keeping individual records is often the goal of those who are collecting the data. He pointed out that as a journalist, he could stand to benefit from unlimited access to specific public call records, especially if he knew that those who were making the calls wouldn’t find out. That philosophy, he said, is the same reason why agencies want to collect their data.

“But we’ve never had that debate over what the lines should be and how that relates to me and our founding principles,” he said.

Gellman went on to explain how the big data creates a secrecy element that obviously favors the watchers over the watched. It’s no secret that all institutions prefer to keep their secrets secret, but as Big Data causes us to become more transparent, it causes companies like Google or government institutions to become more opaque.

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“We’re living with a one-way mirror where we can’t debate it because we don’t fully understand it,” he said.

Chomsky was in accordance, saying, “Power remains strong when it stays in the dark. When it’s exposed to sunlight, it begins to evaporate.”

But Chomsky added that while we’re concerned about surveillance in the face of Big Data, as we should be, this problem isn’t new. Rather, it goes way back. “Im impressed by the scale [of Big Data], but not that it’s happening. It’s been happening for years.”

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He gave examples throughout history of how, even when the technology that we have today did not exist, systems of power have always found ways to collect data in secret. When the UN was being founded in the mid-1940s at the San Francisco Conference, for example, the FBI was bugging rooms of the delegates of all the other countries.

“We can be confident that any system of power – whether it’s the state, Google, or whatever – is going to use the best available technology to control, to dominate, and to maximize their power,” said Chomsky. “And they’ll want to do it in secret.”

Combating that aura of secrecy and institutional desire for power is exactly what led to the actions of people like Chelsea (nee Bradley) Manning or Snowden, as they believed that they were performing the duty of honest citizens. Those people, said Chomsky, were trying to bring an understanding to the public about what exactly their representatives are doing to them without their knowledge.

Gellman was not quite on the same page that access to Big Data was all about domination.

“I think it’s important to know how far you can get into these discussions without assuming bad faith, that these institutions are deliberately working against the interests of citizens,” said Gellman. Upon his inspection of Snowden’s leaked documents, he found that for the most part, what he was seeing was that security institutions genuinely believe that most of the time what they’re doing is protecting you. The belief is that big threats exist, but constituents don’t fully understand them.

“The principle way in which I agree with Chomsky is that the place where the opposition comes from is that they don’t want you to know about things they feel they need to do on your behalf,” said Gellman. “Because they’re afraid you might not agree and want to call it off.”

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Chomsky countered that while these institutions no doubt believe that they are doing the right thing, their major interests are not security. Rather, they simply find ways to justify what they’re doing in the noblest terms. He used the example of how the US is fighting a war on terrorism while, ironically, the drone strikes being used are a terror campaign themselves. For every Al Qaeda operative that’s killed, he said, 40 more terrorists are created, making it clear that security is just not a concern for the US.

“You should be extremely cautious when you hear any promise of security,” said Chomsky. “It carries no technical information.” He went on to say that while the US guarantee of safety means nothing, the same is true of every other system; he even went as far as to make comparisons to Nazi Germany.

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Gellman argued that one could “get off track” if they were to draw those kinds of parallels, as those were instances in which the powers that be were deliberately squashing dissent. In contrast, in the case of the US, there has been no evidence of self-benefitting behavior. But Chomsky countered that the critical point is not that the actions of the US are the same, it’s that the same appeals to security are made in even the most nightmarish of systems.

“That’s why it’s so important to look at these systems that we rightfully look at as monstrous,” said Chomsky. “It’s interesting to look at them and see that they used the same appeals.”

Who’s to blame?

As easy as it might be to condemn institutions like Google or the US government for collecting and using data from us – for whatever purpose, greater good or not – there is one other party that can easily be implicated here: us.

“We’re complicit here in a much deeper sense. We let them do it,” said Chomsky of modern day surveillance. In other places and in older times, it was harder to fight back, but here and now (at least in the US), people can do something about it.

“If we don’t do what we can do to control this kind of effort at surveillance, domination, and control – if we do not expose the plea of security and determine which parts are valid and invalid – then we are complicit because we have the opportunity.”

Gellman agreed, using the example of the often-ignored Terms of Service to which all users of any kind of software or service must agree before using it. “Do you really understand what you’re agreeing to when you click ‘yes’ on the Terms of Service?” he asked. “Generally speaking the Terms of Service are written to say, ‘We can do whatever we want.'”

He did make the concession though, that even though people are essentially agreeing to be spied on, the issue is that there’s no way of monitoring what they actually do.

[Big Data investigations: Opportunity and risk]

“The NSA was recently caught breaking into the private clouds of Google and Yahoo,” said Gellman. “Google responded with outrage, but if you’re really cynical, you could view this as Google saying, ‘Nobody gets to spy on our users except us.'”

Fighting back

As we look upon the situation with Big Data as it stands now, questions abound. Can we learn to live with it, especially by using for good? If the problems it poses outweigh the benefits, are things only going to get worse? There needs to be, as Siegele said, a workable global solution.

It seems unlikely that anybody would disagree to at least some degree of transparency, which Gellman argued would enable greater policy. The more the people know about what’s being done behind the scenes of Big Data, he proposed, the more our existing institutions for regulating power can work. As evidence of how checks and balances are emerging, he cited the fact that the House of Representatives came within 8 votes of ending call collection entirely, an outcome that would have been wholly inconceivable prior to the leaks about the NSA.

Similarly, Gellman explained how transparency allows the people to draw boundaries. The Department of Environmental Protection, he said, monitors electricity usage in apartment buildings, even down to individual apartments. This is undoubtedly useful, but right now there’s no regulation and no warrant requirement for the use of that data. So keeping tabs on the access to that data through transparency is the key.

“With transparency, we can have sufficient openness, meaningful checks and balances, so if they cross those boundaries, someone will know about it and hopefully they will be stopped.”

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Chomsky noted that while transparency is certainly a benefit of which we should all be in favor, we can do more than that.

“We can make use of information that’s available in ways that we’re not doing,” he said. “We can learn about things that are about to happen.”

He pointed to various examples, including how terrorists can easily order drones online, as examples of how it shouldn’t be difficult to predict how the future will play out. “We’re developing and providing the technology that will be used to control us and terrorize us,” he said. “We can learn about that and do something about that. We dont have to wait until it gets exposed by WikiLeaks. It’s right there in journals.”

Chomsky’s words prompted Siegele to ask if he was calling for a political movement.

“The freedoms we have…they weren’t granted as gifts from above,” said Chomsky. “They were won by popular struggle. It’s going to involve education, organization, and the action of mass movements. That may ultimately lead to legislation or the dismantling of institutions.” He warned, however, that this course of action takes time, and is not the sort of process that happens overnight.

“You’re not going to win victories tomorrow,” he said. “But you can build for the longer term.”