I wrote the piece below on July 5, 2013. I am reposting it today because I think it is right. A major issue is who controls the database and how do we know who that is and how do we control them?
At the bottom is a video with whistleblower Bill Binney, who worked at the NSA for thirty years. He brings up these same questions. ABN
Firstly, that database is a sociologist’s wet dream. It is without question the greatest sociological analytical tool ever to come into existence.
The NSA database—using just metadata alone—is capable of discovering and describing in near-perfect detail nearly all social networks in the world.
It is possible that some very secretive groups figured out which way the wind was blowing twenty years ago and have kept away from all electronic surveillance since then, but I doubt that even they can be certain that their membership is not known, or knowable, to the NSA.
In addition to being able to find and analyze all, or virtually all, groups and networks in the world (secret or otherwise), the NSA almost certainly has the capability to reach back years into the content of those groups’ phone calls and other forms of communication.
This makes the database even more than a sociologist’s wet dream. It is also a tool for exceptional good or evil.
First, the evil—anyone with access to the database can spy on virtually anyone anywhere and use the information gained to blackmail, steal inventions or investment ideas, bribe, intimidate, or otherwise do bad stuff behind the scenes.
For the good, the database has the power to figure out groups that are doing bad things and stop them. The database could be used as a massive national and international “lie-detector” or “shit detector.” Just about any group of people up to anything unsavory should be discoverable through the database.
So who controls it? Is there one person at the top? Or a group? Who watches the group?
I am all but certain we will never be rid of that database. If by some miracle the US destroys the NSA database, some other country will surely set one up.
So liberty and goodness now mean that we have to figure out how to make sure the people controlling the database are good people. That they will never do bad things with the information available to them.
How do we do that? Is there any conceivable politics that can bring that about? We need databases watching databases all of which are controlled by groups that are watched by other groups. If we have perfectly reliable lie-detectors, could we establish groups like that? Is there any way forward other than massive transparency of everyone’s life?
It looks to me like our traditional political system is finished. Checks and balances and individual rights are meaningless in the face of that database.