September 28, 2014
I just read a provocative essay in the Atlantic that draws a connecting thread between many of today’s top news stories. What do the ISIS beheadings, the NFL domestic abuse scandals, the Fergeson riots and nude celebrities all have in common? Pics or didn’t happen: The new crisis of the connected camera describes the emergence of the “networked lens” and the ethical questions this new(ish) medium raises.
I’ve been writing and thinking about these themes for years under the heading of The End of Forgetting. The Atlantic piece explicitly separates the bulk of NSA surveillance from this analysis “This is not all to say every issue today is a networked lens issue. NSA surveillance as a whole isn’t, I think. But the agency’s mass-facial recognition is.” This whole discussion reminded of a pet theory of mine that I’ve never written up, but seems more relevant than ever.
What would the NSA do with a time machine? Not one of those fanciful machines that transports matter through time, but the more plausible wormcam variety that only transmits information through time. I described this capability in my post on yottabytes, wormcams and whistleblowers, but never elaborated an early example of this kind of power in action.
Consider this question–Who protects the president against character assassinations? I am pretty sure it’s not his secret service detail, and I seriously doubt his PR team is up to the task. As far as I can tell Michelle is one of Obama’s last lines of defense against a humiliating scandal that would destroy what remains of his disappointing presidency. If JFK were alive today you wouldn’t need a magic bullet to take him out. Hacking into his (or better yet Marilyn’s) Snapchat account would end his political career. Just ask Anthony Wiener.
How clear a picture can metadata paint? In the Atlantic piece, Robinson Meyer quotes Susan Suntag, who once argued that “While there appears to be nothing that photography can’t devour, whatever can’t be photographed becomes less important.” To this I would add the caveat that (meta)data in the right hands can be used to paint a vivid picture, and ruin someone’s image as readily as an HD photo.
Let’s travel back in time to winter ’08. Elliot Spitzer was one year into his first term as governor of New York after a earning a reputation as a fearless prosecutor of Wall Street’s white-collar criminals. He certainly had many enemies, from slimy CEOs to dirty politicians. But not too many people remember what Elliot was working on the night before he ordered out in DC. Exhibit A is posted on web for anyone curious enough to search:
Predatory Lenders’ Partner in Crime, By Eliot Spitzer. Thursday, February 14, 2008
To summarize, Spitzer’s Op-Ed in the Washington posts describes how 49 State Attorney Generals had identified the threat of predatory lending years before the sub-mortgage crisis and he accuses the Bush administration of intervening to prevent any regulation of the banks. He blames the Bush administration, by name and all the way to the top, for the sub-prime mortgage crisis and the worst recession in a generation. And two weeks later he was assassinated. At least, his political career was summarily killed and he resigned from office in disgrace.
As an aside, I find it curious that Spitzer’s Op-Ed was published on Valentine’s Day. I sometimes wonder if he seized the occasion of his Op-Ed publication to combine work and play, as many busy professionals might. Was Spitzer in love with Ashley Dupré? How exactly did they originally meet?
While the scope of the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping and surveillance programs was only speculation in Feb ’08, they were fully operational at this time and I believe that Spitzer may have been one of the first causalities of the NSA’s metadata time machine. Spitzer was taken down by telephone metadata – Client 9’s calls to the DC Madam was they key to the case that eventually led to the release of phone transcripts which included unnecessary graphic detail, like his preference for protecting his feet from the cold during sex and his shunning of all other forms of protection. These images were etched in the minds of the public and were as decisive as the images of Wiener’s junk.
I personally had a conversation with a developer from White Oak Technologies (now renamed Novetta) who coyly described his firm’s involvement in the Spitzer case. Founded before this newfangled craze of facebook-era indirection through venture capital funds, White Oak was a good old fashioned intelligence front, a data mining and analysis company that worked exclusively on government contracts. The developer I spoke with described how his firm got the contract on Spitzer and how they had been hired to dig up some damning dirt. In retrospect, it’s now easier for me to imagine the kinds of data they were mining.
The Snowden revelations provide evidence of warrantless phone wiretapping as well as the collection of data from numerous internet providers through the PRISM program. While Obama has deceptively maintained that metadata is innocuous, Spitzer’s character assassination a potent example of the power of this kind of data.
What would you do with a time machine that let you peer into anyone’s past?