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
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 2148 GMT (0548 HKT)
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1427 GMT (2227 HKT)
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1448 GMT (2248 HKT)
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 0034 GMT (0834 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2055 GMT (0455 HKT)
David Wheeler wonders: If Scotland votes to secede, can America take its place and rejoin England?
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2036 GMT (0436 HKT)
World-famous physicist Stephen Hawking recently said the world as we know it could be obliterated instantaneously. Meg Urry says fear not.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1721 GMT (0121 HKT)
Sally Kohn says bombing ISIS will worsen instability in Iraq and strengthen radical ideology in terrorist groups.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1327 GMT (2127 HKT)
Artist Prune Nourry's project reinterprets the terracotta warriors in an exhibition about gender preference in China.
September 10, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
The Apple Watch is on its way. Jeff Yang asks: Are we ready to embrace wearables technology at last?
ADVERTISEMENT