Until this morning, time travel and alien abduction were the most moronic theories associated with the disappearance of MH370. But now, courtesy of William Saletan and Slate, we have a new champion: The failure to find MH370 means that we don’t have to worry about governments looking through our email.
Seriously: Saletan’s argument is that the hole poked in the surveillance state by a missing airliner means we shouldn’t bother our fuzzy heads stressing about Big Brother.
There’s just too much data out there for anybody to make sense of!
The search for MH370 shows that analyzing surveillance data is much harder than collecting it. That’s what keeps the National Security Agency from reading your email or listening to your calls. Its people simply don’t have the time …
This is the reality of electronic surveillance. Our ability to collect it vastly outstrips, in speed and volume, our ability to digest it. Even with 6 million people helping a dozen governments in an intense, collective hunt, we can’t keep up with the millions upon millions of satellite images.
The first foundational fallacy in Saletan’s argument is the notion that searching satellite data for debris floating in the Indian Ocean is comparable to trawling a dragnet of email, or digitized phone logs, or GPS metadata or any of the other kinds of information that we now know the NSA has been gathering in bulk. In the former case, we are looking for the proverbial pin in the haystack — seeking traces of a physical object lost in a vast physical space. That’s a hard thing to do.
But trawling databases of email or location data is not hard at all — it’s the kind of thing that computers are extraordinarily good at. Google does it to our email every second. Netflix does it to our viewing habits. Advertisers are doing it wholescale. There’s nothing to stop governments from doing it — outside of laws and oversight and public pressure.
I’m not worried about the possibility that Big Brother is literally looking over my shoulder, in the sense that the NSA might be reading my email in real-time as I compose it (even though there are some indications that it can) — or watching me through my laptop’s webcam as I compose this post. I’m worried that if some NSA spook decides, for whatever reason, that she wants to know what I’m up to, she can, because the government has overly broad access to all of my emails, my phone logs, my location data, should it desire to search them!
Only the most willfully obtuse can deny that the migration of our lives into the digital domain has opened vast new expanses of our daily activities to government surveillance. It used to be hard to know what we were reading or where we were shopping or who our friends were. You had to assign human beings to do the shoe-leather work, to follow people physically, to bug their phones and listen to our conversations. As Julia Angwin notes in her new book on privacy, the most advanced surveillance state of the 20th century, East Germany, had access to only a fraction of the information about its citizens that modern governments do.
The ability to write the following sentences — “This is the reality of electronic surveillance. Our ability to collect it vastly outstrips, in speed and volume, our ability to digest it” — betrays a mind-boggling misunderstanding of the nature of Big Data. Our ability to analyze vast amounts of data has never been greater. If the NSA was reading our emails one by one, like the people poring over satellite photos trying to find a piece of wreckage, OK, there wouldn’t be much to worry about. But that’s not how modern surveillance works. The algorithms do the searching, and the algorithms are becoming smarter and more powerful by the minute.
Our lives, unlike the Indian Ocean, are open books for Big Brother.