Bea Edwards Headshot

You're Not a Terrorist? Are You Sure?

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Bea Edwards Headshot

You're Not a Terrorist? Are You Sure?

Posted: Updated:

Click here for the NPR TED Radio Hour segment on privacy and the TEDTalks that inspired this post.

In his TED Talk "How the NSA Betrayed the World's Trust," Mikko Hypponen challenges the minimalist response of many to the revelations of an NSA-constructed dragnet surveillance system. If you think you have nothing to hide, he says, you haven't thought about it long enough.

He has a point. If you ponder the intake of a wholesale surveillance sweep, you'll see that your privacy is your protection from self-incrimination. This is why Article 14 of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, as well as the Fifth Amendment to the US Constitution and the governing principles of democratic countries, all establish the right to freedom from self-incrimination.

Hasan Elahi makes light of our diminishing privacy in his talk: "FBI here I am". After he's told to inform the FBI of his whereabouts because he's on a watchlist, he buries the agency in information: where he goes, what he eats, where he sleeps...He assumes all of this is meaningless to the FBI - little more than noise.

If the assumption is that you're a threat, then your everyday routine may not look so harmless. -- Bea Edwards

But a skilled profiler can sift through the data points and produce an incriminating silhouette. The photo of a taco Elahi ate in Mexico City on a given date establishes his presence in a specific restaurant at a specific time. What happened down the street an hour later? Or the following day? Elahi told the FBI he had a storage unit. Who else has a unit in the same building? What do they do? Who are their friends? Why did one of them travel to Germany last week?

If you haven't committed a crime, you assume that your comings and goings are innocent. But if the assumption is that you're a threat, then your everyday routine may not look so harmless. If Big Data is sweeping up everything about all of us, then a suspicious government agency is ingesting your salary (how are you getting by on this?), your Kindle books (why so many books by that Afghan author?), your takeout orders (what's with all this falafel?), your DNA makeup (are you bipolar?), your Pandora stations (Bob Dylan? Pete Seeger? Other subversive folk singers?), your interest in model airplanes (What's that about? Glue sniffing? Hijacking?), your friends, their friends.

Remember, all this surveillance is not an investigation. The National Security Agency (NSA) is not looking for someone who has already committed a crime. The FBI does that. The NSA is looking for someone who is about to commit a crime. That could be you. Or me.

If the profiler has enough data points and the right algorithm, any one of us could be a threat.

Hyponnen notes that the same people who claim they're not terrorists and have nothing to hide often say that they knew this surveillance was going on already. Well, maybe. But no one outside the intelligence agencies thought much about what it's for. Now that we've asked, the NSA tells us the data help locate future terrorist threats.

So how do the analysts do that? Well, suppose you're algorithmically assigned a number that is constantly evaluated and re-evaluated in real time. Think of it as a personal "threat index" akin to what a FICO score tells you about your personal credit history. Actually, your FICO score will become an element of your place on the threat index, which measures your predisposition to terrorism.

Personally, I don't even want to think about my potential threat index score. I taught at an East German University in 1983/84, one of very few Americans who ever did that. I worked with Salvadoran refugees in 1986/87, and I traveled to Cuba in 1997 for a UNESCO conference. Twice I signed petitions supporting statehood for the District of Columbia. I have friends in Argentina with whom I communicate in Spanish, even when I'm in the United States. Years ago, I went to graduate school with a Palestinian, and we studied together from time to time. I think we also took some drugs, but I can't remember. Probably.

All this means that my score blinks red. I think...I'm pretty sure. I don't know for certain because the criteria, the weights for the variables, the algorithm and the ultimate score are secret.

When we say, "I'm not a terrorist, so why should I care what the NSA does," we're forgetting a crucial fact: we don't decide any longer whether we're terrorists. Nor do we decide whether we're going to be terrorists. Someone else does. We don't know who those people are, or why they think that. We've never spoken to them, met them or seen them, nor have they spoken to us.

It doesn't matter. They guessing at what we're likely to do, and they're looking for more data to confirm their suspicions. Inadvertently, we're providing it. Where did you have lunch last Tuesday? You don't remember? Well, have a look at these security tapes. Who is that sitting next to you? Did he give you something? No?

Are you sure?

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