Most governments spy on their own citizens and those of other countries. Big Data technology gives some more scope than others. The Snowden leaks revealed that the US NSA and Britain’s GCHQ mined petabytes of data from a host of electronic sources, ostensibly to track terrorists as part of the covert PRISM project. Sometimes they went by the book, submitting government approved requests to electronic media owners, ISP and mobile network operators who were signed up to PRISM. But they cut out the paperwork when there was only 24 hours to save the planet, which happened a lot at the height of the War on Terror.
Our chattering classes were shocked because liberal democracies are not supposed to do that sort of thing, even though TV shows such as The Wire, 24, Homeland and Spooks had sexed us up to the idea. In an extraordinary manifestation of American Exceptionalism, the NSA at first tried to shrug it off, demonising Snowden, but when it was revealed that German Chancellor, Angela Merkel had been the subject of US mobile phone surveillance since 2002, the US was forced onto the defensive.
The NSA warned that his theft of 50,000 documents pose a far more dangerous threat than the stuff revealed in The Guardian and New York Times. For example, they argued, prior to Snowden, terrorists might not have worked out that a single random phone call made from a remote corner of Pakistan to someone in, say, Bradford or Barcelona would be spotted by PRISM analytics, precisely because it was a one-off. Now they know, terrorists won’t make phone calls, Tweet, go on Facebook or use GMail – at least not to do terrorist-related stuff. But Big Data giants have applied their analytic skills to work out that the 99.999 per cent of people who aren’t terrorists might also be put off using social media and running up phone bills if they feel their privacy and personal data security is under threat.
This week Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo and AOL, US owned companies with a combined market value of USD 14 trillion signed a joint letter of protest to President Obama calling for a change of surveillance laws. Big Data business infrastructure players such as IBM, Cisco and Oracle claim that the US stands to lose ‘up to USD35 billion in 2014 alone’ in the fallout from the PRISM spying scandal.
Today we heard that the NSA has been hacking Google cookies, the ubiquitous invisible markers which websites use to ease navigation but commercial sites use to map consumer behaviour and then bomb them with targeted advertising guff. Big Data has even launched a website to broadcast its concern – but how do we know that we won’t get cookied and profiled as troublemakers if we go on the site?
We don’t, and that’s the Catch 22 of the Golem which Big Data has created. Tim Berners Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, recently warned that government online surveillance and censorship pose an increasing threat to democracy. Conspiracy theorists might even point to the coincidence of all these ‘protests’ in the same week but, arguably the totalitarian drift of the signals intelligence Doozers can only be tempered by a concerted protest from Big Money, the real Boss of it All.