Frankenstein, Tinfoil Hats, And The NSA

Oct 1, 2013

Every new technology is a Frankenstein. Once it is created it is no longer in the control of its creator and once released into the world, it may behave in ways the creator never intended. That’s not to say that all new technologies are monsters; rather, it’s to point out the inherent duality in every new technology to be both good and bad. To put it simply: technology is not neutral.

“If we examine technologies honestly,” writes Kevin Kelly in his recent book What Technology Wants, “each one has its faults as well as its virtues. There are no technologies without vices and none that are neutral. The consequences of a technology expand with its disruptive nature. Powerful technologies will be powerful in both directions—for good and bad.”

Like Frankenstein, technologies take on a life of their own. Unintended consequences are rarely foreseen and often result from the second-order effects that occur. For example, invent an automobile to replace horse-drawn carriages but have no idea that you were also creating a world of traffic jams, climate-changing CO2 emissions, and massive oil spills that pollute the world’s oceans.

Or worse: truly believe that the technology you’ve created is going to accomplish one thing when it does the complete opposite. In 1917 Orville Wright predicted that airplanes would “help peace” because they “will have a tendency to make war impossible”. When Hiram Maxim invented the machine gun, he claimed that it would, “make war impossible”.

“Unforeseen consequences stand in the way of all those who think they see clearly the direction in which a new technology will take us,” writes Neil Postman in Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. “A new technology does not add or subtract something. It changes everything.”

The Internet has changed everything but not in the way anyone might have imagined when the first two nodes were interconnected on October 29, 1969. The first iteration of the Internet (the ARPANET) was a U.S. government initiative to build a fault-tolerant, redundant communications link among computers in the event that other communications links such as telephone and radio were taken out by one of our enemies (mainly the Soviets). Second-order effects such as email, the World Wide Web, and ecommerce were unforeseen benefits of what grew to become a global communications infrastructure. For the most part, these are good things.

And yes, of course, there’s the bad too. The Internet has destroyed privacy and enabled one of the most massive and pervasive government surveillance apparatuses in human history. Think of the most diabolical intelligence organizations of police states in history: the Gestapo of Nazi Germany, the Stasi of former East Germany, the KGB of the former Soviet Union. These were dark, draconian organizations that kept meticulous tabs on targeted people. They had vast networks of informants and spies. They maintained thick dossiers packed with all manners of personal information about persons of interest.

But all of the intelligence gathering capabilities of those organizations combined are nothing compared to the intelligence gathering capability of today’s National Security Agency (NSA). The NSA, which is responsible for the “global monitoring, collection, decoding, translation and analysis of information and data for foreign intelligence and counterintelligence purposes,” is the world’s largest harvester of data.

If you’re a tinfoil-hat-wearing conspiracy theorist, you just said, “well, no sh!t Sherlock”. Personally, I don’t wear a tinfoil hat but that has more to do with my keen sense of fashion than an unwavering blind-trust that my government is always looking out for my best interests.

This past summer there was a flurry of news stories about the NSA’s various secret surveillance programs following the leak of classified documents to the media by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. What the public learned from these leaks was that the NSA was collecting massive amounts of data, including the metadata for nearly every telephone call made in the U.S., email, Facebook posts, instant messages, and massive amounts of raw Internet traffic.

According to an investigative report by ProPublica, “How the NSA actually gets the data depends on the type of information requested. If the analyst wants someone’s private emails or social media posts, the NSA must request that specific data from companies such as Google and Facebook...The NSA also has the capability to monitor calls made over the Internet (such as Skype calls) and instant messaging chats as they happen.”

If someone is a “person of interest” (a.k.a, a “target”), the NSA has the capability to track “nearly everything a user does on the Internet”, according to one of the leaked classified documents. But because the NSA has taken the Hoover vacuum approach to data collection, they most likely have data on you even if you are not a target.

According to ProPublica, “The NSA probably has information about you even if you aren’t on this target list. If you have previously communicated with someone who has been targeted, then the NSA already has the content of any emails, instant messages, phone calls, etc. you exchanged with the targeted person.”

All of this data is stored in NSA data centers and the exponential explosion of user-generated data has resulted in new NSA data centers being constructed such as the sprawling $1.2 billion dollar data center in the Utah desert that is scheduled to go fully operational this month. Yes fellow taxpayers, that’s right: you are paying for your government to collect information on you and legally store it for up to 5 years.

While the second-order effects of a new technology are rarely foreseen, perhaps Scott McNealy, the co-founder of Sun Microsystems, got it right about the Internet when he famously said way back in 1999, “You have zero privacy [on the Internet] anyway. Get over it.”