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Here Be Dragons

Why the NSA's Critics Might Secretly Want It to Exist

Everyone needs a bit of order in their lives.
June 13, 2013, 10:20am

The Hall of Honor at the NSA headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland. (Photo via)

Martin Robbins is a writer and talker who blogs about weird and wonderful things for the Guardian and New Statesman. Here Be Dragons is a new column that explores denial, conflict and mystery at the wild fringes of science and human understanding. Find him on Twitter @mjrobbins, or email tips and feedback to martin@mjrobbins.net.

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“You are being watched. The government has a secret system: a machine that spies on you every hour of every day.” No, not the opening line of Glenn Greenwald’s latest warning about the NSA, but the narration at the start of the TV show, Person of Interest. The machine in question is an artificial intelligence that sucks in data at will from every camera, server and sensor in the land, and uses it to predict murders and acts of terror. The processing power and complexity needed to achieve this feat is so immense that the machine – imaginatively named "The Machine" – appears to have become self-aware, evolving into a sort of Skynet-with-daddy-issues, and one of the most fascinating "characters" in recent TV history.

Which is a roundabout way of illustrating the point that the idea of an omniscient organisation – let alone the NSA – processing the totality of human knowledge into anything resembling useful intelligence remains firmly in the realms of science fiction.

It’s not even clear why you’d want to try, when 99.999 percent of it is going to be of no interest whatsoever. I'm loathe to take aim at such an obvious target, but King of Twitter Justin Bieber has tweeted more than 22,400 tweets to his 40 million cultists. He has never tweeted anything that could be described as "intelligence". Why follow his tweets at all when, in Bieber’s own words, he is "going to tell my truth thru music"? His Twitter account is essentially an information vacuum, and nothing useful can ever come of it, just as the majority of your own tweets will be jokes that aren't good enough to tell out loud and thoughts that aren't worth turning into fully-formed ideas.

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The Guardian’s frustratingly-vague reporting over the weekend suggested that the NSA collected 97 billion "somethings" from computer networks in March 2013, with the "somethings" variously described as "reports", "pieces of intelligence" and "metadata". That sounds like a lot of data, until you remember that most of it is going to be shit. That’s why the NSA appear to only collect metadata rather than the contents of messages, and even then only for targeted searches. There’s only so much a bunch of civil servants with a coffee machine and a budget can achieve.

The NSA headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland. (Photo via)

That isn’t to downplay the importance of PRISM, or the questions rightly being asked about it, but what’s fascinating about the reaction to the Guardian’s revelations, aside from the overwhelming lack of surprise, is that so many of the NSA’s critics are happy to believe it has almost superhuman capabilities. Comments sections are filled with statements like: “Not only the metadata of phone calls, but also the content of everything is being scrutinised and stored in case more scrutiny is needed.”

Which would be quite an achievement, given that even Skype doesn’t actually store Skype calls. On Twitter, dozens of people have been tweeting links to a fake NSA website, unaware that it’s a parody. It’s almost as if people want to believe this stuff.

That may actually be true. I’ve spent way too much of my life debating conspiracy theorists of various kinds – particularly 9/11 Truthers – and what’s always struck me is that the name "conspiracy theorist" is completely wrong. Conspiracy theorists almost never have theories. I talked to dozens and dozens of Truthers over a couple of years, and almost none of them could give me any coherent answer to the question, "So what actually happened, then?"

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After a while, I realised it wasn’t really about the stories at all, it was about control. They couldn’t accept that things just happen – somebody has to be in charge. Planes can’t just come out of the sky and hit buildings at random, there has to be some great piece of governmental machinery that allows it to happen. The alternative is too terrifying to consider – that things happen chaotically and you could literally die at any moment. Right now, a bit of metal could just fall out of the sky, strike you at your desk and you’d be dead in an instant. You wouldn’t even know about it. Any fucking moment.

David Aaronovitch’s book, Voodoo Histories, examines the human need for order and meaning, while psychologist Viren Swami’s review of what little science there is on the topic notes that conspiracy theories often spring up among the powerless or voiceless, a defensive mechanism through which it might be possible to gain some semblance of certainty in uncertain times. Islamic terrorism, wars with muddied agendas, financial systems ailing because of the mistakes of faceless entities – the general lack of public understanding of these issues means that they are all, in a sense, pieces of metal that have fallen out of the sky.

Professor Stephan Lewandowsky paints a similar picture in a recent interview with Salon: “Paradoxically, it gives people a sense of control. People hate randomness, they dread the sort of random occurrences that can destroy their lives. So, as a mechanism against that dread, it turns out that it’s much easier to believe in a conspiracy. Then you have someone to blame – it’s not just randomness.”

Lawyers and academics have a theory of their own, something they refer to as "the CSI Effect". In 2010, the Economist declared that, "television dramas that rely on forensic science to solve crimes are affecting the administration of justice". Massively popular shows like CSI and Bones are so far from reality that a lot of the techniques they use may as well be magic. As a result, jurors turn up to trials with a warped sense of what forensics can actually achieve. One trial judge recounts overhearing a juror questioning why the police hadn’t dusted a lawn for fingerprints.

“What I think is at play here is that shows such as CSI, NCIS, 24, etc, give people the impression that information is instantaneous and infallible,” Matt Hartings, an Assistant Professor of Chemistry at American University, told me. “Results pop up much faster in real life, and the analysts are much more certain about results than I, as a scientist, would be. The information on these shows comes fast and furious and infallible.”

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The research on how this affects trials has been pretty mixed, but it does seem pretty clear that TV shows affect our impressions of science and technology. As trial judge Donald Shelton puts it, “Many laypeople know – or think they know – more about science and technology from what they have learned through the media than from what they learned in school.”

That probably isn’t limited to CSI – we’ve seen similar in the media-driven MMR hoax, and the explosion of Roswell believers in the years since The X-Files first aired. With so many TV shows and movies showing the intelligence services using miraculous technology – “Enhance!” – juggling satellites like a clown on a tricycle, and monitoring anything, anywhere at will, it’s not surprising that so many comments in the wake of the Guardian’s reporting over the weekend were along the lines of, “So? We knew about this anyway…”

The upshot of all this is that even if PRISM didn’t exist, a lot of people would assume it did anyway; and that some of us, on some subconscious level, would kind of wish it did. As the debate about state surveillance plays out in the coming months and years, that need is something privacy campaigners should pay consideration to.

Follow Martin on Twitter: @mjrobbins

Previously - The Developing World Needs GM Plants More Than It Needs Hippy Protesters