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Nothing but Net(works) May 15, 2006

Posted by gordonwatts in politics, Uncategorized.
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Once a month, on Friday, the UW sponsors a great series of lectures call Science Forum. Someone who has made it at UW comes and gives a talk to the community. The lectures are almost always good, and often touch on some of the key scientific issues of the day.

Last Friday Carl Bergstrom came and talked about "Ecology, Evolution, and Antibiotic Resistance." I have my issues with the talk, but the last 10 minutes of talk were brilliant.

The USA Today story about the NSA gathering phone numbers broke last week, as most of you know. I'm sorry to say that I wasn't all that suprised by the news and basically just let it wash by as another example of an over-reaction to 9/11 and the current attitude towards personal privacy. Bergstrom saw it as something much more evil — a take I'd not appreciated until he presented it. His point: it's the network, stupid.

In our society we are responsible for what we do. We do something illegal, we should take responsibiltiy for it. Then, in the McCarthy era, it became more about the people you know. If your friends were "evil", then they could rat you out. It was a once-removed type of argument. With the phone number collecting done by the NSA, however, it is now about the full web of interactions between people. If it turns out several of your friends know "bad" guys, then you become a prime suspect — even though you did nothing wrong. This is, according to Bergstrom, like McCarthyism squared (well, worse, because it is a network…). In fact, your actions no longer matter. It isn't about anything you've done in the past. It is now all about who your friends know.

It put this latest phone number scanning in a whole new (ugly) light. It also makes you realize how powerful data-mining is. Things we didn't worry about keeping private in the past, perhaps, suddenly require privacy given the increases in data storage and compute power out there!

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