Skip to main content

Where's the evidence that data mining saves lives?

By Shane Harris, Special to CNN
updated 3:43 PM EDT, Fri June 7, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Should you care that the government is collecting telephone and Internet data?
  • Shane Harris says attitudes to privacy have changed
  • Massive quantity of data is unlikely to yield evidence of terrorist plots, he says
  • Harris: We need hard evidence that trading off privacy for security actually works

Editor's note: Shane Harris is the author of "The Watchers: The Rise of America's Surveillance State."

(CNN) -- Since it was revealed this week that the National Security Agency is collecting the telephone and Internet data of millions of people, this is the question most people have asked me more than any other: "Why should I care that the government has all this information?"

On Thursday, as we were learning that the NSA has been storing the so-called metadata of millions of Verizon customers, a woman told me that she was less concerned about the intelligence agency knowing her phone number than she was the local CVS, which has been calling her at inconvenient times and pressuring her to renew prescriptions she was filling at another pharmacy.

Maybe it's because we don't feel the surveillance state bearing down on us the way we do pushy marketers that many people aren't that concerned about the government compiling enormous databases on our digital activities.

Shane Harris
Shane Harris

Indeed, we already knew that intelligence agencies have been doing this for years. In 2006, shortly after the revelation that the NSA was monitoring some Americans' phone conversations without warrants, a poll showed the public was evenly divided on whether it was a good or a bad practice. If it helped catch terrorists or prevent attacks, roughly half of the people responding were willing to give up some measure of privacy.

Inherent to that calculation is our understanding that the definition of "privacy" has changed. It doesn't have remotely the same context as it did in the late 1970s when the law restricting the government's authorities to monitor Americans -- authorities that had been scandalously abused -- was enacted.

Back then, our expectation of privacy extended to our relationships with our family and friends. To things like phone calls or the mail. Today, these personal connections, and the information we willingly share about ourselves, are the foundations of our increasingly public social networks. We know that complete strangers are looking at our Facebook pages. Should we be surprised that the government is too?

Probably not. But you might be surprised to find out that all this information the NSA and other agencies are collecting is not very useful for stopping terrorists, which is why it's being collected in the first place.

To date, there have been practically no examples of a terrorist plot being pre-emptively thwarted by data mining these huge electronic caches. (Rep. Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, has said that the metadatabase has helped thwart a terrorist attack "in the last few years," but the details have not been disclosed.)

When I was writing my book, "The Watchers," about the rise of these big surveillance systems, I met analyst after analyst who said that data mining tends to produce big, unwieldy masses of potential bad actors and threats, but rarely does it produce a solid lead on a terrorist plot.

Those leads tend to come from more pedestrian investigative techniques, such as interviews and interrogations of detainees, or follow-ups on lists of phone numbers or e-mail addresses found in terrorists' laptops. That shoe-leather detective work is how the United States has tracked down so many terrorists. In fact, it's exactly how we found Osama bin Laden.

Now, electronic data does play a crucial role in those investigations. But only when it is narrowly searched, with specific criteria at hand -- a name, say, or a phone number. Officials have said that this is how that metadatabase is used. Analysts can only look at it when they have the number of a suspected bad actor, and they want to search for his connections. That may offer some reassurance, however slim, that there are at least some controls on how that information is being searched.

But we've also learned about a separate collection program, known as PRISM, that reportedly lets analysts tap directly into the central servers of top U.S. Internet companies, and then siphon off e-mails, photographs and audio and video files.

We're told that U.S. individuals' information is routinely swept up in these searches, and that it's subsequently segregated from information about foreigners. But according to training manuals for PRISM examined by The Washington Post, analysts are told that when Americans get caught in the net, they should just file a quarterly report about the incident, and that "it's nothing to worry about."

This looks a lot like that big data mining that analysts have told me doesn't produce solid leads. What it does do is implicate potentially innocent Americans in a vast sweep of some of the most ostensibly private information there is, particularly your e-mails.

Reasonable people can come to different conclusions about how comfortable they are with the government building all these databases. But we shouldn't accept officials' broad claims that these searches, and the information they're based on, are protecting the nation's security. If we're going to hand over so much information about our once-private lives, we should have some assurance that the trade is worth it.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Shane Harris.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:47 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Jimmy Carter's message about the need to restore trust in public officials is a vital one, decades after the now 90-year-old he first voiced it
updated 5:56 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Ford Vox says mistakes and missed opportunities along the line to a diagnosis of Ebola in a Liberian man have put Dallas residents at risk of fatal infection
updated 6:21 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Pepper Schwartz says California is trying, but its law requiring step-by-step consent is just not the way hot and heavy sex proceeds on college campuses
updated 4:48 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Mike Downey says long-suffering fans, waiting for good playoff news since 1985, finally get something to cheer about
updated 5:39 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Steve Israel saysJohn Boehner's Congress and the tea party will be remembered for shutting down government one year ago
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Yep. You read the headline right, says Peter Bergen, writing on the new government that stresses national unity
updated 7:12 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Hong Kong's pro-democracy demonstrators are but the latest freedom group to be abandoned by the Obama administration, says Mike Gonzalez
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
updated 10:23 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
updated 10:55 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
updated 7:03 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
updated 10:19 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
updated 2:59 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
updated 9:32 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
updated 8:33 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
updated 5:37 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
updated 12:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
updated 10:39 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
updated 9:09 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
updated 5:10 AM EDT, Wed September 24, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT