Paranoid America–by which I mean its governors–has long dreamed of foolproof technology to guard the Homeland from subversion, or penetration by alien hostiles.
In its latest variant the vaunted technology comes in the form of sweeps by the computers of the National Security Agency, programmed to intercept hundreds of millions of phone, e-mail and fax messages. These days as much as a third of global communications are on fiber-optic cable routes that pass through the United States.
The NSA’s programmers claim that the artificial intelligence programs–terabytes of speech, text and image data–monitoring the filters are of such refinement that they can determine the sex, age and class of the communicators and, no doubt (though they take care not to boast of any such profiling), their genetic and linguistic ethnicity too. After all, Middle Easterners are surely a prime target.
A very useful story in the February 5 Washington Post, headlined “Surveillance Net Yields Few Subjects,” cites “knowledgeable sources” as saying that about 5,000 Americans have had their conversations recorded or e-mails read without court authority. Of these, fewer than ten US citizens or residents a year “have aroused enough suspicion during warrantless eavesdropping to justify interception of their domestic calls, as well.”
Such intercepts would require a warrant from a judge, with the request couched in terms of probable cause, usually defined as being a one-in-two chance of the suspicions being justified. So clearly a final cull of ten or so a year out of hundreds of thousands, or most likely tens of millions, means the “probable cause” standard was abandoned.
“Data mining” by artificial intelligence is a proceeding that is not only constitutionally illegal but a technological fantasy. The Post quotes Jeff Jonas, chief scientist at IBM Entity Analytics, as saying pattern-matching techniques that “look at people’s behavior to predict terrorist intent are so far from reaching the level of accuracy that’s necessary that I see them as nothing but civil liberty infringement engines.”
Every era produces its techno-Panglosses, eager to guard America and demanding torrents of public money to that end. In Reagan’s time it was the Strategic Defense Initiative, with missiles programmed to launch on warning that enemy warheads were plummeting into the Homeland. That spasm of military Keynesianism has thus far merely cost money. Back in the early part of the twentieth century the data miners and Star Wars fantasists had their equivalents in men of intellectual eminence who successfully agitated for filters to be installed at America’s ports of entry to detect genetic terrorists, i.e., people of bloodstock deemed by the fearful eugenicists to be a threat to America’s gene pool.