March 31, 2012

Which Big Brother

About a decade ago, after the events of 9/11, there was a program called Total Information Awareness (TIA) run out the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

The intent was develop and use technology to capture data (lots of it), decipher it, link it, mine it, and present and use it effectively to protect us from terrorists and other national security threats. 

Due to concerns about privacy--i.e. people's fear of "Big Brother"--the program was officially moth-balled, but the projects went forward under other names.  

This month Wired (April 2012) reports that the National Security Agency (NSA) has almost achieved the TIA dream--"a massive surveillance center" capable of analyzing yottabytes (10 to the 24th bytes) of data that is being completed in the Utah desert. 

According to the article, the new $2 billion Utah Data (Spy) Center is being built by 10,000 construction workers and is expected to be operational in a little over a year (September 2013), and will capture phone calls, emails, and web posts and process them by a "supercomputer of almost unimaginable speed to look for patterns and unscramble codes."

While DOD is most interested in "deepnet"--"data beyond the reach of the public" such as password protected data, governmental communications, and other "high value" information, the article goes on to describe "electronic monitoring rooms in major US telecom facilities" to collect information at the switch level, monitor phone calls, and conduct deep packet inspection of Internet traffic using systems (like Narus).

Despite accusations of massive domestic surveillance at this center, Fox News (28 March 2012) this week reported that those allegations have been dismissed by NSA. The NSA Director himself, General Keith Alexander provided such assurances at congressional hearings the prior week that the center was not for domestic surveillance purposes, but rather "to protect the nation's cyber security," a topic that he is deeply passionate about. 

Certainly new technologies (especially potentially invasive ones) can be scary from the perspective of civil liberties and privacy concerns.

However, with the terrorists agenda very clear, there is no alternative, but to use all legitimate innovation and technology to our advantage when it comes to national security--to understand our enemies, their networks, their methods, their plans, to stop them, and take them down before they do us harm.

While, it is true that the same technologies that can be used against our enemies, can also be turned against us, we must through protective laws and ample layers of oversight ensure that this doesn't happen. 

Adequate checks and balances in government are essential to ensure that "bad apples" don't take root and potentially abuse the system, even if that is the exception and not the rule. 

There is a difference between the big brother who is there to defend his siblings from the schoolyard bully or pulls his wounded brother in arms off the battlefield, and the one who takes advantage of them.

Not every big brother is the Big Brother from George Orwell's "1984" totalitarian state, but if someone is abusing the system, we need to hold them accountable. 

Protecting national security and civil liberties is a dual responsibility that we cannot wish away, but which we must deal with with common sense and vigilance.  

(Source Photo: here)


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