NSA Data Mining And 'Cybernetic Water Witches'

I've been fascinated with the rise in the technology of data mining and the people who search for patterns in data. The recent stories about the NSA's PRISM program - and all of the other programs that have been revealed - show how our world's leaders hope to find what scares them in vast heaps of data generated by internet usage, CCTV camera recordings, credit card usage etc.

Mr. Kelly’s move to the spy agency, which has not previously been reported, underscores the increasingly deep connections between Silicon Valley and the agency and the degree to which they are now in the same business. Both hunt for ways to collect, analyze and exploit large pools of data about millions of Americans.

The disclosure of the spy agency’s program called Prism, which is said to collect the e-mails and other Web activity of foreigners using major Internet companies like Google, Yahoo and Facebook, has prompted the companies to deny that the agency has direct access to their computers, even as they acknowledge complying with secret N.S.A. court orders for specific data.

Yet technology experts and former intelligence officials say the convergence between Silicon Valley and the N.S.A. and the rise of data mining — both as an industry and as a crucial intelligence tool — have created a more complex reality.

Silicon Valley has what the spy agency wants: vast amounts of private data and the most sophisticated software available to analyze it. The agency in turn is one of Silicon Valley’s largest customers for what is known as data analytics, one of the valley’s fastest-growing markets. To get their hands on the latest software technology to manipulate and take advantage of large volumes of data, United States intelligence agencies invest in Silicon Valley start-ups, award classified contracts and recruit technology experts like Mr. Kelly.

I think my interest was originally piqued by William Gibson, in his 1996 novel Idoru. In the book, he refers to a special kind of person who is an intuitive expert in the search for patterns in personal data - a cybernetic water witch:

He was an intuitive fisher of patterns of information: of the sort of signature a particular individual inadvertently created in the net as he or she went about the mundane yet endlessly multiplex business of life in a digital society. Laney's concentration deficit, too slight to register on some scales, made him a natural channel-zapper, shifting from program to program, from database to database... in a way that was, well, intuitive.

And that was the catch, really, when it came to finding employment: Laney was the equivalent of a dowser, a cybernetic water witch. He couldn't explain how he did what he did. He just didn't know.

Via New York Times.

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