To The NSA Your Book Club Looks Like A Terrorist Group

from the interceptr-2.0-should-stay-in-beta dept

Privacy issues aside, it’s worth wondering what the NSA plans to do with the mountains of call records it has allegedly been collecting. In the past we’ve expressed serious doubts on the efficacy of data mining and social network analysis as techniques for combating terrorism. One of the problems with social network analysis, in particular, is that terrorist networks resemble other benign networks, like a book club, or a group of parents who carpool their kids to school. Looking only at calling patterns, it’d be impossible to determine whether a group is coordinating an attack, or simply a way to get make sure everyone got news that the book club had changed venues that night. The NSA will soon learn the lesson that the Tampa police learned from their experiment in facial recognition, that the number of false positives could render the system useless. At the moment, the debate over NSA domestic spying seems to be between civil libertarians and privacy advocates on one side, and security hawks on the other. But it’s hard to see why those that defend the system can support what’s likely to be a fruitless waste of security resources.

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Comments on “To The NSA Your Book Club Looks Like A Terrorist Group”

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Angry Rivethead says:

Re: Re: Known Terrorist

The problem with getting a warrant is that this requires divulging information to MORE people. If I was a federal agent working on this level, I wouldn’t feel comfortable notifying a judge about my suspect. For all you know, the judge could be a terroist sympathizer. People seem to forget the same kind of judges that are being asked for warrants are the same douchebags that award multimillion dollar settlements to people for burning themselves on coffee or whining because someone made them eat a goldfish in order to be on a footbal team (“hazing” cases). With the legal climate the way it is judges should be the LAST group notified of an investigation.

DG Lewis (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Known Terrorist

“People seem to forget the same kind of judges that are being asked for warrants are the same douchebags that award multimillion dollar settlements to people for burning themselves on coffee or whining because someone made them eat a goldfish in order to be on a footbal team…”

Actually, they’re not. The judges that are being asked for “warrants”, at least in most national security and terrorism cases, are FISC (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court) judges operating under FISA. FISC is a secret court with all records sealed. I’d be worried about information leaking through a lot of other channels before I’d be worried about it leaking through FISC.

chaalz says:

Re: Re: Known Terrorist

I think what is meant is that someone may be a suspected terrorist. What I really want to know is what percentage of people who lost a family member in the 9/11 attacks are against this?

Noone can say with 100% certainty that data mining will never prevent an attack. Heck maybe it only prevents 1 in 1000, but if I gave you a scenario where every member of your family dies in that 1 attack, and that that attack could have been prevented with all this “waste of time” as some of you call it, then would you still be against it?

If you are, then go home to your family and tell them that to their faces. Tell them that even if these efforts could stop only 1 attack in 10,000 and thus save their lives, you sitll wouldnt support these efforts because its a “waste of time”.

I dont mean to be argumentative, but lets talk with some reason and compassion. Afterall, we are supposed to be the civilized ones right?


Curtis Breuker (user link) says:

Re: Re: Re: Known Terrorist

I am vehemently againts it. Using your logic perhaps we should issue marshal law, mandatory 6pm curfew. It WILL prevent terror attacks.

We must not give up our civil liberties for so called “security” The bush administration and republicans only use it for political purposes, and to their credit it has gotten them reelected.

If Terror was a big deal we would have focused on afghanistan and got Bin laden! Instead of doin an aboutface and attacking Iraq.

joe says:

Comparisons can be dangerous

You can’t compare the NSA to anyone. Not to many people in the free world truly know what is going on here and how the information is being used.

But to bash an agency and compare them to city police is absurd.

And I’m sure when research finds a book club, processing models will be tweaked.

Why is everyone a pessimist about this. I have nothing to hide – Look at all of my calls if it will help!

steve says:

Re: Comparisons can be dangerous

I’m sick and tired of hearing people say “I’ve got nothing to hide”. This is the same sort of thinking that allowed the Gestapo, the KGB; and now the NSA to run roughshod over our rights in the name of the State! We have to draw a line in the sand, or I will be saying “I told you so”, when they drag your son off to a concentration camp for participating in a peaceful ant-war demonstration or your daughter for having a phone conversation with her girlfriend that turns to a brutal round of Bush bashing.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Comparisons can be dangerous

“i’ve got nothing to hide” is the worst argument ever. its ignorant and moronic. its not a matter of trying to hide something, its a matter or principle. They’re trashing our civil liberties here. If we let them do so, who knows what will go next in the name of the war against terrorism. the government is playing on the stupidity of people to gain more power and control over us. whether its helpful or not isn’t the question with the NSA. Its not even a question of whether its necessary. its a question of our rights to privacy. whether or not its something that i’m not afraid of the government finding out isn’t a problem. its a question of whether they should have the right to look for something in the first place. at what point did we all become suspected terrorists? and at what point did all of you that agree with the NSA’s action get the idea that the government is doing a good thing by treating us all as suspects? thats the scary thing. you *want* to be treated as a suspect. you think its actually a good thing. that’s when you really have to worry about the government. its easy to fight a government that forcibly tries to take your rights away. the government is successfully convincing people to GIVE their rights away voluntarily and happily. thats what people should be scared of.

Professor HighBrow (user link) says:

Regardless of the data

Regardless of the data, what about the teqniques used to obtain it? Does it really even matter how accurate it is? I find it hard to believe that the government ‘knows best’ on how to process the illigally obtained data.

The idea of massive databases of private records obtained without reason or any probable cause is simply un-American and illegal in the first place. Whether or not it is for the “Greater Good” is not and should not be up to politicians.

The details of the issue are so overshadowed by the basic problem that the analyitical aspecects of how the information is processed are irrelevant.

A simple analogy:

Police enter my home and find illegal possessions inside while I’m away at work, and don’t aquire a warrant. Do I go to jail? No, beccause if that actually worked in real life the government would be ‘stopping by’ each and every one of our homes, including yours.

It is a logical fallacy to fall for the line, “If you have nothing to hide, then why can’t we take a look?”

–Prof HiB

mike says:


Typically, the NSA is very aware of the functions and limits of algorithms. They are the number 1 employer of mathematicians in the world. Your disbelief in the field of social networks is guaranteeably not based on a real understanding of the methods the nsa actually uses or their limitations. What you are doing is called extrapolation, and its dangerous.

Because you are wrong, you should eat your own dogfood:

I suggest that we let the NSA have all the phone records it wants, because it actually does know what and how its doing, and I suggest that we ban you from posting extrapolative comments without being informed about them.

Dr S says:

NSA datamining

Read the recent New Yorker article on this. We HOPE NSA appropriately applies social networking technology. I think the big issue is that any infomration they glean from the data has such murky legal status, that it’s not necessarily usable in court. The current administration appears to not be interested in the issue, dismissing attention to it as liberal hand-wringing. but it messes up the NSA’s work.

Junyo says:

Regardless of the data, what about the teqniques used to obtain it? Does it really even matter how accurate it is?

Which is the best point of the whole thread. Being free comes with inherent risk, and discussing everything from the standpoint of ultimate safety is a nonstarter. Totalitarian regimes are simply safer (as long as you don’t constitute a threat to the state), but safety isn’t the goal of democracy, freedom is. To live in a free society is to accept that our courts will let people who are probable murderers go free; that we will hear people say things that we find irrational, treasonous, traitorous, or blasphemous; and that we will occasionally be the victims of some crime that could have been prevented by pervasive monitoring of every individual. That’s part of the the price for that society. People always remember Patrick Henry’s line about “Give me liberty or give me death…” but the a sentence before that he asked, “Is life so dear or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains or slavery?”

I wonder how many people in this country, hell the world, would say yes to that question.

chaalz says:

Re: Re:

You bring up a very good point. I guess we need to define freedom first, since this is really what the debate is all about. Some dont want the gov to have absolute power, but want absolute freedom. I’d rather go with some moderation in all things.

I dont necesarrily see how someone looking at my phone records means I’m not free. Someone please explain.

And to compare our so called “lack of freedom” today with the actual “lack of freedom” of people during the times of our founding fathers is quite disrecpectful. Have you even heard of that thing…whats it called…oh yeah…slavery. We all have it real good my friend. Dont forget that.

Its hard to get an honest debate going, when there is such a difference of philosophy on things like freedom and power. But on the bright side, its better than living in a country of indifference.


Harris says:

Re: Re: Re:

The real question is “Who should the government be investigating?”

Police work can be very difficult and require a lot of intelligence. Most criminals try to get away. Given their druthers, it is the natural response of bureaucracies to give up on investigating crimes or following up on evidence and just concentrate on investigating innocent people instead. Innocent people do a lot of stupid things, like cooperating and giving up their civil rights. Once you get inside their car or their house or their phone records its easy to find ‘evidence’ for various ‘crimes’. Check out the various profiles for drug dealers they use at airports these days. Golly, almost everyone is a suspect. Look what it took for all those people to end up at Guantanamo. Look very closely at the case of each person who has been convicted in a terrorism-related case in the last five years.

Here is what you’ll find in each case: An awful lot of ‘criminals’, but almost no crime. Just a lot of ‘suspicious activity’. Allowing the government more leeway in investigating innocent people is nothing less than an invitation to disaster.

Patrick Mullen says:

OK, what laws have been broken? Which amendment has been voilated by the NSA stories? Rob Preston wrote a great article in this weeks InformationWeek.

He states:

The NSA isn’t monitoring phone calls and otherwise conducting illegal “surveillance.” No one has said that the NSA is listening in on calls, just looking at the patterns.

The Supreme Court ruled in Smith vs. Maryland that law enforcement agencies don’t need a warrant to collect data to mine, the 4th amendment right to privacy allows this.

He goes on to say some other things, but the fact is, the only people that are talking about this are either uninformed, have a political axe to grind or a member of the media who likes to get headlines. Next week, they will start writing about Bird Flu, Anthrax or the latest emergency of the week.

Anonymous Coward says:

Also keep in mind that the groundwork for this was laid by previous administrations. Government will be government, and everybody making this a partisan issue is an idiot. For instance, our boy Slick Willy signed 1996’s Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, which required telcom companies and manufacturers to build in the facilities to wiretap their equipment. Why?

“He’d like to give the FBI more tools so there will be no more bombing like at the Olympics,” White House spokeswoman Mary Ellen Glynn said Monday.

Well that worked like gangbusters.

People always forget that even if you think you can trust the guy in office, sooner or later the other guy gets a turn, and the question is, do you trust him?

Ron Goodwyne says:

I agree with Prof HiB that it is a fallacy to say that you have nothing to worry about if you have nothing to hide. Liberty isn’t about hiding something bad, it is about being free from government intrusion.

That being said, I disagree with the assertion that what the NSA has done so far is illegal. There are some pretty sharp legal minds who disagree on this as well so blanket assertions that it’s illegal are unhelpful to say the least.

I don’t think what the NSA is doing to this point is data mining though, as someone else said, we really don’t know what the NSA is doing. (I would add that we should NOT know. Secrecy is essential if the NSA is to be able to function at all.) But my understanding is that the NSA wants to see who else has called ar been called by known terrorists or terrorist sympathizers. I suspect a warrant is useless when the known phone number is in a foreign country. Therefore, sifting through the data is the only way to see who else is involved.

I can’t help but recall a little program that was running under the Clinton administration called echelon that actually listened to all phone, radio, email and satellite traffic looking for key words. I don’t remember anything like the outcry we hear over call logs today.

Alpharocker (user link) says:


My favorite argument is this one:

“I don’t care, I don’t have anything to hide. Let the NSA take a look at my phone calls. Doesn’t matter to me.”

Not only is it a logical fallicy to suggest that because you don’t care what they do, it is okay to do it, but if everyone was giving their permission, there wouldnt be a problem. They aren’t asking!

I don’t care if the NSA looks at my phone records because I am getting the fuck out of this country, and moving to one that still has shit like freedom, justice, and civil liberties and not just a bunch of fascist militaristic propaganda and espionage.

And I welcome your comments of “Good, we don’t want your hippy liberal gay marriage abortion supporting ass here anyway.” Because I will be laughing from Canada while the US implodes, as the value of the dollar crashes, the deficit explodes, oligarchies control legislature and the government establishes the foundations of a military state.

Which one of those things isn’t happening right now?

Junyo says:

Which amendment has been voilated by the NSA stories?

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

Seems pretty clear. No searches of me, my property, or my records without a judicial review that determines that probable cause exists.

As for the rationale that the Supreme Court ruled one way or another, the answer is, with respect, fuck the Supreme Court. They’ve been ruling clearly enunciated Constitutional rights in and out of existence for years, and bending it to the political will of their patrons. When the Supreme Court shows the reading comprehension required to grasp the phrase “Shall not be abridged” then I’ll consider what they say as having some weight.

Anonymous Coward says:

I dont necesarrily see how someone looking at my phone records means I’m not free. Someone please explain. The fact that I have to consider whether having a political conversation via phone with my friend Abdul Shabbaz, followed by a large fertilizer purchase and the rental of a Ryder truck will get my ass snatched to Gitmo. The coercive effect on my actions of such consideration. The potential for further coercion by changing the parameters of what’s being grepped for and how that data will be reacted to. The fact that with no data destruction policy I have no idea whether my connection to “suspected terrorist” Abdul will surface in a future political or business dealings.

And to compare our so called “lack of freedom” today with the actual “lack of freedom” of people during the times of our founding fathers is quite disrecpectful. None of the people commonly referred to as Founding Fathers was a slave, nor did their calls for freedom include slaves. Most of the noble speeches and eloquent worlds on which our country is based come from the land owning educated gentry class, who’s idea of freedom largely concerned tax rates and commerce barriers; and the lack of accountability and redress to the government. Those men were arguably more free than the average citizen today; not nearly as burdened with pretty laws, local ordinances, , fines for spitting, littering, or loitering, the Patriot Act, the DCMA, or Induce. Keep in mind that one of the tripwire acts of the rebellion was the state having the temerity to try and confiscate privately owned artillery. Try rolling a working howitzer out in your front yard to see how free you are right now.

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