Okay, so the NSA isn’t in the habit of making public statements unless it gets caught doing something extra-sneaky, but it’s easy to imagine the spooks at our premiere spook outfit rubbing their hands with anticipation over Mark Zuckerberg’s much-ballyhooed plan to extend Internet access to billions of currently Internet-less people around the world.
Of course there’s a lot to be said about Zuck’s plan, selflessly supported by Samsung, Qualcomm, Ericsson, Nokia, and others. The digital divide does indeed threaten to leave behind the two-thirds of the world’s population who still aren’t connected to the Internet: studies have shown that Internet access can raise incomes, increase social mobility, and improve health for low-income populations in both the developed and developing world. Mobile banking has revolutionized personal finance and commerce in Africa, farmers in India are using information from mobile devices to get better prices from their crops, and around the world political activists are discomfiting authoritarian regimes with online dissent. Generally speaking, more information is better than less.
The only fly in the ointment is that the NSA would surely agree with that last statement. Among those billions of currently unconnected folks are doubtless some very angry people who will use the Internet to connect with likeminded individuals and possibly join a terrorist organization -- and the NSA will be watching. I’m not arguing that it’s bad to catch terrorists (far from it) but as we’ve seen, the NSA’s process for doing so is, shall we say, “data intensive,” as you have to collect a lot of information on a lot of people to catch the ones you’re looking for. As the director of the NSA, General Keith Alexander, recently put it, “You need the haystack to find the needle.” And the haystack is about to get a lot bigger.
Nor should we delude ourselves that the NSA and its spooky partners, both in the U.S. and in foreign countries, have divulged even close to the full extent of their snooping. Indeed, today’s Wall Street Journal reports that “The NSA has built a surveillance network that covers more Americans’ Internet communications than officials have publicly disclosed, current and former officials say.” It’s only natural to wonder how much more lies beneath the surface.
And although Alexander protested that it isn’t humanly possible to listen to every phone call or read every email, the simple fact is that while humans might not be able to, computers certainly could. With consumer-oriented voice recognition and semantic analysis software improving as fast as they are, just imagine what the good people at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) are working on; put that together with massive computing power and yes, it probably is possible to scan every phone call and email for certain keywords, anomalous speech patterns, apparent use of coded language, and the like. If they’re not doing it now, it’s only a matter of time before they will.