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June 06, 2013

Re-Thinking PRISM

These aren't firm thoughts. But I'm thinking about slowing down on first reactions.

First of all, we have to be aware that the US is not particularly good at human intelligence. Even when we were halfway decent at it, our opponent was the Soviet Union. Which, importantly, was a country. There are a lot of people in a country, and therefore a lot of potential spies.

There are far fewer people in a terrorist organization and therefore fewer potential spies. And while a disillusioned Soviet might turn spy for us, a disillusioned Al Qaeda is likely just to quit the group. Thereby taking himself out of a position where he could serve as a useful spy.

But Soviet citizens, trapped behind the Iron Curtain, couldn't quit the Soviet club. By trapping their citizens and abusing them, the Soviets made a lot of potential spies for us.

I don't think Al Qaeda does that. Again, the easiest way to defy Al Qaeda is to flee it. Not to remain in place, passing secrets to the West.

The US has never been particularly good at human intelligence, so we have made ourselves quite good at technical intelligence. This is how we've historically compensated for our so-so abilities in the human espionage realm. We've been very good at capturing signals. We famously tapped the trans-Atlantic phone cable, and thus could eavesdrop in on all phone traffic between the US and Europe (and Russia beyond).

Right now I'm thinking of Chesterton's parable of the fence.

In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, I dont see the use of this; let us clear it away. To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: If you dont see the use of it, I certainly wont let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.

This paradox rests on the most elementary common sense. The gate or fence did not grow there. It was not set up by somnambulists who built it in their sleep. It is highly improbable that it was put there by escaped lunatics who were for some reason loose in the street. Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good thing for somebody. And until we know what the reason was, we really cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable. It is extremely probable that we have overlooked some whole aspect of the question, if something set up by human beings like ourselves seems to be entirely meaningless and mysterious. There are reformers who get over this difficulty by assuming that all their fathers were fools; but if that be so, we can only say that folly appears to be a hereditary disease. But the truth is that nobody has any business to destroy a social institution until he has really seen it as an historical institution. If he knows how it arose, and what purposes it was supposed to serve, he may really be able to say that they were bad purposes, or that they have since become bad purposes, or that they are purposes which are no longer served. But if he simply stares at the thing as a senseless monstrosity that has somehow sprung up in his path, it is he and not the traditionalist who is suffering from an illusion.

I don't know why the fence was built and I'm wondering if we should slow down on calling for its demolition until we know better why it's there and what functions it may be serving.

Given that I think we probably have little actual human intelligence on Al Qaeda, and even less on our recent plague of Leaderless Jihadis, and are not likely to get very much better at that sort of thing, technical means of collection are probably our only real source of intelligence and we might need to hesitate before foreswearing this avenue altogether.

It might be that different versions of this are palatable, and others unpalatable, and, knowing so little, we don't know which this is. I think the creepiest thought is that there is a human being reading our emails. That is creepy, because human spies, human voyeurs, are creepy.

But what if the program were such -- and when I say "what if," understand I have no idea if it works this way; I am simply speculating about one possible configuration -- that automated non-human algorithms searched for certain keywords and, generally, signs of either a foreign language or English being written by a non-native speaker. And what if the traffic so identified was kicked up to a higher level of automated scrutiny-- still no humans reading -- and scanned for additional worrisome signs.

And then, only after the billions of messages had been screened down to Worrisome Few, say a few thousand in a month, would humans then check the flagged passages, and then, if they thought those passages were alarming, seek a judge's warrant to read the full text, and not just the flagged sentences and phrases.

Now, I think that such a system would be far less worrisome, although it would still be creepy, and of course still prone to great and serious abuse.

On the other hand, I'm pretty sure that if we abandon our advantage in the realm of computer processing power (and the incredible advantage we have in that most internet traffic, world-wide, circulates through the US), I think we're going to be down to our human capabilities which, once again, I think are virtually non-existent with regard to Al Qaeda. I think we'll be down to the felt.

I don't know. We need to know more, obviously.

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posted by Ace at 08:31 PM

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