The dumbest conclusion drawn from MH370 yet

Just because we can't find a missing airliner doesn't means our fears of Big Brother are unwarranted

Topics: MH370, Surveillance, surveillance state, NSA, snowden, Edward Snowden, Privacy, ,

The dumbest conclusion drawn from MH370 yet (Credit: AP/Richard Wainwright)

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.

You Might Also Like

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.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    Martyna Blaszczyk/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 1

    Pond de l'Archeveche - hundreds thousands of padlocks locked to a bridge by random couples, as a symbol of their eternal love. After another iconic Pont des Arts bridge was cleared of the padlocks in 2010 (as a safety measure), people started to place their love symbols on this one. Today both of the bridges are full of love locks again.

    Anders Andersson/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 2

    A bird's view of tulip fields near Voorhout in the Netherlands, photographed with a drone in April 2015.

    Aashit Desai/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 3

    Angalamman Festival is celebrated every year in a small town called Kaveripattinam in Tamil Nadu. Devotees, numbering in tens of thousands, converge in this town the day after Maha Shivratri to worship the deity Angalamman, meaning 'The Guardian God'. During the festival some of the worshippers paint their faces that personifies Goddess Kali. Other indulge in the ritual of piercing iron rods throughout their cheeks.

    Allan Gichigi/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 4

    Kit Mikai is a natural rock formation about 40m high found in Western Kenya. She goes up the rocks regularly to meditate. Kit Mikai, Kenya

    Chris Ludlow/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 5

    On a weekend trip to buffalo from Toronto we made a pit stop at Niagara Falls on the Canadian side. I took this shot with my nexus 5 smartphone. I was randomly shooting the falls themselves from different viewpoints when I happened to get a pretty lucky and interesting shot of this lone seagull on patrol over the falls. I didn't even realize I had captured it in the shot until I went back through the photos a few days later

    Jassen T./National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 6

    Incredibly beautiful and extremely remote. Koehn Lake, Mojave Desert, California. Aerial Image.

    Howard Singleton/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 7

    Lucky timing! The oxpecker was originally sitting on hippo's head. I could see the hippo was going into a huge yawn (threat display?) and the oxpecker had to vacate it's perch. When I snapped the pic, the oxpecker appeared on the verge of being inhaled and was perfectly positioned between the massive gaping jaws of the hippo. The oxpecker also appears to be screeching in terror and back-pedaling to avoid being a snack!

    Abrar Mohsin/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 8

    The Yetis of Nepal - The Aghoris as they are called are marked by colorful body paint and clothes

    Madeline Crowley/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 9

    Taken from a zodiac raft on a painfully cold, rainy day

    Ian Bird/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 10

    This wave is situated right near the CBD of Sydney. Some describe it as the most dangerous wave in Australia, due to it breaking on barnacle covered rocks only a few feet deep and only ten metres from the cliff face. If you fall off you could find yourself in a life and death situation. This photo was taken 300 feet directly above the wave from a helicopter, just as the surfer is pulling into the lip of the barrel.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

Loading Comments...