The danger of data: Not the information, but the interpretation

Critics say the massive amount of information collected by the NSA make correctly using the data a challenge.

Chaos Computer Club Annual Congress
Studies show that young people value privacy more than older generations [Getty Images]

“We’re spies,” my six-year-old daughter told me. “You live in our spy house.”

“Who are you spying on?” I asked. She looked at her friend, a fellow first-grader. He shrugged.

“We don’t know,” she said. “We’re going to spy on everybody until something happens.”

This is, essentially, the philosophy of the National Security Agency.

Most articles on the NSA focus on the invasion of privacy – the government’s alleged capacity to read personal email, archive personal data, and monitor an individual’s behaviour. But surveillance is only part of the problem.

The greatest danger of data collection lies not in the information, but in its interpretation. With billions of pieces of intelligence stored in a given month, the ability to gather data has exceeded the ability to analyse it. The trail supersedes the target. Data becomes its own context.

“The NSA itself doesn’t really know how the data it is collecting is being used,” writes sociologist Zeynep Tufekci, warning of the danger of mass surveillance with no clear purpose. She describes how easily personal data can be used for blackmail, undermining the security structure it is supposed to uphold.

Defenders of the NSA have dismissed the idea that the information gathered would be used for malicious purposes, noting the low rate of documented abuse. What this misses is that “abuse” is in the eye of the beholder. Abuse of data is not only manipulation or malice but gross misinterpretation, a depersonalisation of the personal.

The discomfort that most people feel at the ability of the NSA – or Facebook and Google, for that matter – to store and analyse our data is not that they know too much about us, but that they understand too little. Depersonalised data is viewed as more reliable, more objective, than human interpretation tainted by emotion and bias.

But ultimately data is a matter of power: the position of the interpreter versus the interpreted. The greatest threat of online surveillance is not that they know us, but that they think they do, and we are hostage to their interpretation. They will spy until “something happens”, and what we naively called “life” will be spit back as evidence.

Privacy and new media

Pundits have conflated the erosion of privacy through surveillance with the voluntary posting of information about oneself online. Many claim that young people do not value privacy, but surveys show the opposite – they value it more than older generations. Having grown up in the digital era, young people understand that what they post online is not a summary of who they are. The omission of information, its deliberate inaccessibility, is what defines private life. Privacy is control.

The parsing of data to presume criminality is equivalent to zealots quoting random passages from religious texts, divorcing them from their broader and more benevolent implications.

On July 13, the actor Cory Monteith, star of the television series Glee, died of a drug overdose. His final words on Twitter were: “Oh. IT’S A SHARK TORNADO.” Like thousands of Americans, Monteith had spent the previous evening tweeting about Sharknado, a TV movie about a tornado made of sharks.

Had Monteith been one of those ordinary people who abruptly rises to celebrity – in the United States, usually a mass murderer or one of his victims – his Twitter account would have been relentlessly scrutinised for insight into his character. Because Monteith was already famous, his tweet was merely pitied. But his death provides a valuable lesson. His overdose shocked fans who had little idea of the extent of his drug problems. He had been living a private life that deviated greatly from his public image.

The same could be said about most internet users. Social media structures time into status, making ordinary people the PR agents of their own lives. Encouraged to “share”, we do, but we also exaggerate and omit. The average Facebook profile is not a mirror reflection, but a Cubist portrait of contradiction and selective truth.

One can find out everything about a person on the internet and come away knowing nothing. But try explaining this to law enforcement, or anyone in the business of determining your identity through a digital lens. How do you defend yourself against yourself? Every explanation comes out like a lie.

“Every time, I think twice before I put something on Facebook. I have to make sure it doesn’t give the wrong idea to law enforcement,” a young Muslim woman, living in Queens, told Al Jazeera. Aware that the NYPD was monitoring Muslims, she self-censored – the inevitable by-product of surveillance.

Defenders of state surveillance often argue that if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to worry about. But that assumes that what you present to the world will be interpreted fairly. For populations already (and unjustly) viewed as suspicious, every disclosure is a risk. The NSA sweeps have given a taste of this fear to the broader population.

Data requires interpretation

“When people show you who they are, believe them,” Maya Angelou famously proclaimed. The challenge of this dictum in the digital era is that how we show ourselves – and when, and to whom – has changed. Which counts more, the “you” created through data stored by machines – or the “you” that you insist is real, the “you” that is so much harder for an outsider to know?

In a society built on presumed innocence – and despite evidence to the contrary, the US is indeed such a society – who you claim to be matters more than what people claim you are. Data is not proof. Data without context is not just cause. Data requires exegesis. The parsing of data to presume criminality is equivalent to zealots quoting random passages from religious texts, divorcing them from their broader and more benevolent implications.

The NSA’s data surveillance programme is part of a larger trend in which data, depersonalised, is presumed to provide answers. But the promotion of information over knowledge has proven disastrous in fields that rely on interpersonal communication.

“The process of teaching and learning is a humanistic endeavour. There are bonds to be forged, even while measuring situations and outcomes with data … but with such a high stakes grip, data will only continue to dehumanise education and demoralise children, families, and educators,” writes Robert Rendo, a public school teacher who bemoans the effect data-based assessments have had on the education system.

Despite its macho posturing, national security is also a humanistic endeavour. The best intelligence relies on a thorough assessment of a threat and nuanced understanding of its cultural and political context. This is impossible to achieve through technology alone. The NSA’s big data surveillance sweep, as several analysts have argued, has showcased its incompetence while increasing paranoia and distrust.

Our online self-expression – selective and self-censored, complicated and contrived – is being mistaken for the summation of our being. The great existential fear is no longer not knowing who we are. It is not getting the chance to find out.

Sarah Kendzior is an anthropologist who recently received her PhD from Washington University in St Louis.

Follow her on Twitter: @sarahkendzior