Time and again I am struck by examples of how predictable human behavior is. Not that I am good at those kind of predictions (oh no). But as the big digital companies of our time (think Google, Facebook… Amazon!) show you on a daily basis they are well able to predict your next action. What word are you going to type? Are you pregnant? What are you looking for, which book are you about to buy? Amazon even patented something they call ‘anticipatory shipping’; they will ship your package to you before you even know you want to order it!
And so I sat down to watch a film about a revolutionary surveillance program. A Good American tells the story of code breaker genius Bill Binney. Decades before ‘anticipatory shipping’, Binney was convinced that suspect behavior could be predicted by analyzing interaction patterns between people all over the world. Using metadata of interactions (not the actual content of the interaction but rather the timing, the involved actors, the duration and location etc.) Binney successfully predicted all kinds of military events that happened during the twentieth century. In his eyes, those predictions were a great way to inform military and political decision makers to be prepared for future events, though somehow his predictions never really reached those decision makers.
During the 1990s, with the NSA faced with the growing data deluge, Binney was in charge of the so-called ThinThread program. Rather than analyzing all the data’s content, Binney’s approach of analyzing and mapping the metadata solves all the classic Big Data problems of volume, velocity and variety the NSA was facing. You only have to look at the patterns to catch the bad guys.
The output of ThinThread is something Binney and his team called ‘the big-ass graph’ (the artistic impression in the film is beautiful). It modeled the networked relationships of people around the world communicating and interacting with each other, indicated individuals who behaved suspiciously and enabled the NSA to examine the content of those interactions of those individuals in detail. Binney claims it would have prevented 9/11 had it not been dismissed by the then-director of the NSA Michael Hayden.
I have no doubt that ThinThread’s ability to sort through data could have informed decision makers of the planned terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001, but I find it a pity that the mastermind(s) behind it have fairly little to say about the ethical dilemmas that such systems bring about. In fact, Binney proudly and repeatedly refers to ThinThread’s encryption technique to protect the privacy of (U.S.) civilians. Yes, Thin Thread is encrypted; but only so long as you want it to be encrypted. Imagine it falling into the ‘wrong’ hands; you and I won’t have secrets on the Internet any longer.
And if you think you have nothing to hide, try to google (or use a search engine that doesn’t record your metadeta) ‘signature strikes’, and see the consequence of too much faith in the predictiveness of human behavior.
I can imagine all kinds of horrific events that ThinThread could have avoided: but what about all those events that are a consequence of ThinThread’s network modeling techniques? I wonder what he would have to say about that? Let me end with a quote from Michael Hayden: “We kill people based on metadata.”