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Profile: Jon Stokes
Jon Stokes was a participant or observer in the following events:
DARPA logo. [Source: Duke University]The computer and technology experts at Ars Technica, a well-regarded Web publication which describes itself as focusing on “the art of technology,” speculate on the technology behind the NSA warrantless wiretapping program recently revealed to the public (see December 15, 2005). The Ars Technica experts believe that Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV)‘s 2003 comparison between the program and the Total Information Awareness (TIA) project (see March 2002) is the most apt. They believe that the NSA wiretapping program may be built upon the foundation of a shadowy, highly classified surveillance program called Echelon. They write, “This system’s purpose would be to monitor communications and detect would-be terrorists and plots before they happen… This project is not interested in funding ‘evolutionary’ changes in technology, e.g., bit-step improvements to current data mining and storage techniques. Rather, the amount of data that the directors are anticipating (petabytes!) would require massive leaps in technology (and perhaps also some massive leaps in surveillance laws).” [Ars Technica, 12/20/2005; Ars Technica, 2007] Data storage measured in petabytes is a colossal capacity; a petabyte is 1,024 terabytes, and a single terabyte is 1,024 gigabytes, the usual measurement for hard drive capacity. [TechTerms, 2007] The Ars Technica experts continue, “According to DARPA, such data collection ‘increases information coverage by an order of magnitude,’ and ultimately ‘requires keeping track of individuals and understanding how they fit into models.’” They go on to note that the NSA wiretapping program was instituted shortly after the TIA project was quashed by Congress, and say they believe the NSA program is an extension and an outgrowth of TIA. They note that “the FBI requested the legal authorization to do very high-volume monitoring of digital calls” in 1995, that there is “no way for the judicial system to approve warrants for the number of calls that the FBI wanted to monitor,” and that the FBI “could never hire enough humans to be able to monitor that many calls simultaneously, which means that they’d have to use voice recognition technology to look for ‘hits’ that they could then follow up on with human wiretaps.” The Ars Technica experts believe the NSA is using “some kind of high-volume, automated voice recognition and pattern matching system,” employing a form of “smart filtering” that would weed through perhaps hundreds of thousands of computer-monitored calls and turning a fraction of those calls over to human analysts for evaluation: “[Y]es, this kind of real-time voice recognition, crude semantic parsing and pattern matching is doable with today’s technology, especially when you have a budget like the NSA.” In a follow-up, Ars Technica technology specialist and self-described conservative and “privacy nazi” Jon Stokes writes of his own concerns over the program, noting that the program is too wide-reaching and too blunt to actually catch many real terrorists, and that the program is a tremendous intrusion into Americans’ fundamental privacy: “The problem is not that such large-scale industrial fishing invariably catches a few dolphins along with the tuna, but that between 99.999 and 100 percent of what you’re going to get is dolphin.” Stokes also warns that such an intrusive surveillance program will not only violate privacy rights, but be quite ineffective: “As the TSA, with its strip-searching of people’s elderly grandparents, abundantly proves every holiday season, blunt instruments and scorched earth tactics are of dubious value in catching genuine bad actors. In fact, blunt instruments and wide nets are the easiest for professional bad guys to evade. All you need to beat such surveillance tools is patience and know-how.…Blunt instruments like airport facial recognition software and random subway bag searches produce much more noise than they do signal, and any engineer or computer scientist worth his or her salt will tell you that an intelligent, targeted, low-tech approach beats a brute-force high-tech approach every time. There is no high-tech substitute for human intelligence gathering. In fact…an overload of crudely processed information is actually more likely to lead an analyst astray than it is to produce any useful insight.…In the end, brute force security techniques are not only corrosive to democratic values but they’re also bad for national security. They waste massive resources that could be spent more effectively elsewhere, and they give governments and countries a false sense of security that a savvy enemy can exploit to devastating effect.…[I]t’s not just enough to have sound intelligence; you also need political leaders who have the wisdom to use that intelligence appropriately.” [Ars Technica, 12/20/2005]
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