Unfortunately, “data-driven” has become a conversation-ender, rather than a conversation-framer. There are scores of substantive policy discussions to be had, about big issues — like PRISM — and small, like how the Obama administration chooses to order the healthcare plans detailed for the public on HealthCare.gov, which can nudge Americans toward one provider or another. But there are gaping holes in the understanding of big data among the private sector, elected officials and policy specialists — not to mention the public at large.
The PRISM and Verizon episodes have made plain that we lack even a common vocabulary for talking about big data. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., has for years tried to dance between his responsibilities as a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee and his desire to galvanize public attention on the NSA’s operations. In a hearing last year, he asked Director of National Intelligence James Clapper for a yes-or-no answer to a seemingly straightforward question: “Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?”
“No, sir,” came Clapper’s response. “Not wittingly. There are cases where they could inadvertently, perhaps, collect, but not wittingly.”
In light of the PRISM and Verizon revelations, critics have seized on these remarks as evidence of the agency’s duplicity. But as the Electronic Frontier Foundation has pointed out, the intelligence community uses a different definition of “collect” than other humans do, holding that it refers to the act of actively processing materials rather than, you know, collecting them.
“This job cannot be done responsibly if senators aren’t getting straight answers to direct questions,” a frustrated Wyden said this past week. (Nor is it always possible in these things to simply pretend it’s Opposite Day. Under federal law, “content” includes details such as email subject lines. But the NSA has held that it isn’t parsing “content” when it evaluates the subject lines of emails it has collected. Or is that “collected”?)
In the high-tech and business worlds, big data is all upside and potential. Data on agiant scale exposes truths hidden in smaller sets. But in the policy realm, when big data is discussed at all, the conversation tends to focus on angst over personal privacy — and whether big data is a major threat.
That’s a limited view of what’s at stake. The government would have a strong self-interest in knowing, for instance, whether some small slice of the 1.1 billion Facebook users was discussing a coup, even if it couldn’t pinpoint the planners. That would be particularly true if, at the same time, it saw an upswing in people pulling up Google Maps images of the Ellipse across from the White House. Patterns are powerful.
Obama has sought to dismiss “the hype that we’ve been hearing,” as he put it, about the NSA’s data-crunching efforts by arguing that they’re complex answers to national security challenges — and ones that Congress has been fully briefed on. But there’s much to discuss about the nature of PRISM and similar programs before we get into the security nitty-gritty. And if it’s a complicated discussion, all the evidence suggests that it isn’t one that Congress is well equipped to have on its own.