Skip to main content

Where's the evidence that data mining saves lives?

By Shane Harris, Special to CNN
June 7, 2013 -- Updated 1943 GMT (0343 HKT)
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
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2108 GMT (0508 HKT)
The NFL's new Player Conduct Policy was a missed chance to get serious about domestic violence, says Mel Robbins.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1023 GMT (1823 HKT)
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 0639 GMT (1439 HKT)
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2020 GMT (0420 HKT)
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1456 GMT (2256 HKT)
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 2253 GMT (0653 HKT)
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1550 GMT (2350 HKT)
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2123 GMT (0523 HKT)
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1426 GMT (2226 HKT)
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1828 GMT (0228 HKT)
Rip Rapson says the city's 'Grand Bargain' saved pensions and a world class art collection by pulling varied stakeholders together, setting civic priorities and thinking outside the box
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2310 GMT (0710 HKT)
Glenn Schwartz says the airing of the company's embarrassing emails might wake us up to the usefulness of talking in-person instead of electronically
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2233 GMT (0633 HKT)
The computer glitch that disrupted air traffic over the U.K. on Friday was a nuisance, but not dangerous, says Les Abend
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says the CBO didn't provide an accurate picture of Obamacare's impact, so why rehire its boss?
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 0040 GMT (0840 HKT)
Russian aggression has made it clear Ukraine must rethink its security plans, says Olexander Motsyk, Ukrainian ambassador to the U.S.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 0046 GMT (0846 HKT)
The Senate committee report on torture has highlighted partisan divisions on CIA methods, says Will Marshall. Republicans and Democrats are to blame.
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1833 GMT (0233 HKT)
It would be dishonest to say that 2014 has been a good year for women. But that hasn't stopped some standing out, says Frida Ghitis.
ADVERTISEMENT