The Corner

Big Data, Big Brother: It’s a Big Deal

Government knows it can find small problems by sweeping up “Big Data.” Sifting through it, they can find terrorists’ needles amid a haystack of tweets about who got voted off The Voice. PRISM isn’t the only security initiative to employ this approach, which is why the Times might want to keep that template handy.

Though big-data searches are increasingly common, that doesn’t mean the PRISM story wasn’t newsworthy, or that people shouldn’t pay any attention.

America is built on the principle of “ordered liberty,” which seeks to maximize both security and freedom at the same time. The art of governance, then, is to establish rules that let the good guys get the bad guys without infringing on the freedom of the people.

The Constitution doesn’t give us a rule book to do that. Instead, it sets up security and freedom to fight it out with each other, constantly, like two indefatigable pit bulls. The struggle is intentional, so neither side wins out, but neither gets compromised. Freedom and security tear at each other until we get answers that reasonably address both. So, if people stop raising objections every time security might look like it’s winning out, the system will fail.

Stuff like this should make news.

Indeed, the New York Times might want to move to a fill-in-the-blank forma because the system is pretty healthy, so there are bound to be many of these stories in the future. 

The world of big data, collecting massive amounts of information and the figuring out ways to sort through the stuff and use it, is only going to get bigger.

It can also be pretty much guaranteed that the U.S. intelligence community will be a big consumer of big data. Last year, Steve Cambone, the former under secretary of defense for intelligence, led a team of top former intelligence officials in a sweeping review of the future of the community. The No. 1 challenge they outlined was dealing with big data. The report primarily addresses open-source data, information that is publicly available to anyone, but big data is also going to include personally identifying information and information constitutionally protected under the Bill of Rights. 

Cambone also made the case that big data is not an unreasonable intrusion or an inefficient way to address small problems. Sometimes the easiest way to find a needles is put more hay in the stack — in other words, the greater the amount of data we look at, the more the anomalies stand out. 

The challenge, of course, is to conduct all these activities within the bounds of ordered liberty. 

The issue in the case of PRISM, as it will be with all the future fill-in-the blank reporting, is: Did the government get it right?

Like the French Revolution, it’s too soon to tell. 

There is no question it can be done right. In the case of battling transnational terrorism, Washington has honed instruments such as the Patriot Act and the FISA courts to do just that. 

In this case, right now all that is available are press reports and government talking points. In press reporting on intelligence, as in war, truth can often be the first casualty. As for government talking points, well, after Benghazi — seriously?

So the challenge in this case, as it will be with future stories, is whether the government can defend and explain its work in a way that convinces us it’s been done right without compromising the system it says it needs to use to protect us. That is no easy task. Stewart Baker, who has spent more time than almost anyone inside or outside of government thinking about how to do this, wrote today:

In theory, you could add the check of exposing the system to the light of day .  . . wrecking much of its intelligence value. Or . . . simply prohibit collection . . . (and lose the ability to spot terrorism patterns by matching disparate bits of data). I doubt that those “solutions” are worth the price.

In short, neither full transparency nor just eschewing big data will work to secure both security and freedom.

We don’t and shouldn’t trust government to follow its own rules on its own, but we need government to do its job right and find means to assure us it’s doing its job in compliance with the law.

That is a hard task, and sadly we have an administration with a mediocre track record of getting it right.

— James Jay Carafano is vice president of defense and foreign-policy studies for the Heritage Foundation.


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