The NSA and Six Degrees of Separation

Recent revelations of how extensive the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) data collection efforts are concern me in many ways, but for this posting I just want to address one.  The Six Degrees of Separation  Terrorism Problem.  What the Six Degrees theory states is that everyone is just six steps away from everyone else, on the planet.  That is, I could introduce you to someone who could introduce you to someone, etc.  and within five introductions you could connect with anyone on the planet.  Guess what, that means every one of us is within five introductions of being introduced to a terrorist.  In reality, most of us are probably much closer.

When we were teenagers I discovered that one of my cousins was (briefly) a member of the Jewish Defense League (JDL) and an acquaintance of founder Meir Kahane.  Kahane would later emigrate to Israel and form Kach, which the Israelis banned as a terrorist organization.  The FBI also implicated the JDL in acts of domestic terrorism.  And they placed Kahane under extensive surveillance.  I never had anything to do with the JDL nor met Kahane, but think about it: I was one introduction away from the leader of a terrorist organization.  And my cousin probably has some interesting notes in an FBI file.

How about another early teenage experience?  A friend and I were wandering around Manhattan on one of our periodic photography expeditions when we got the bright idea to see if there was anything worth photographing in New Jersey.  So we hopped on a PATH train and picked a stop at random, which turned out to be Jersey City.  We walked out of the train station and into some kind of rally.  A “White Power” rally as it turned out.  We started to get some great pictures of guys in KKK-like robes up on the stage when we were accosted by a group of African-American teenagers.  Seems we’d been mistaken for participants in the rally and a small racial incident began to unfold.  Thanks to Monty Pythonesque “active fleeing” we managed to get out of Dodge before becoming the lead story on the six o’clock news.  But to the point of this blog post, we no doubt show up in photographs taken by law enforcement officers monitoring the event.  In today’s world of facial recognition software if this happened now I’m sure my presence at the event would be noted in an FBI file.  And just for getting off a train at the wrong place and time.

Another cousin married a Persian Jew whose family came in from Turkey and Israel for the wedding.  One of my brothers had a Top Secret security clearance at the time and not only had to notify his employer’s security office that he was going to an event where foreign nationals would be present but had to be debriefed afterwards about his interactions with those foreign nationals.  I can only imagine that a pattern of international calling and traveling amongst Persians (aka, Iranians, even if Jewish) in the U.S., Turkey, Israel, and who knows what other countries might raise eyebrows in the post-9/11 era.

Which takes me away from ancient history to today.  Being in high-tech I’ve had numerous Muslim co-workers, a number of whom I would classify as friends.  I hold them in high regard both as colleagues and human beings and would never think of them as being associated with terrorism.  So what are the odds that a former co-worker who is Palestinian is within two or three degrees of separation from a member of what the U.S. classifies as a terrorist organization?  According to LinkedIn I have 9 million people within three degrees of separation just amongst its membership.  The worldwide population of Palestinians is about 11 million, so it is not inconceivable for any Palestinian to be within three degrees (or two introductions) of every other Palestinian.  That doesn’t mean a particular individual is a terrorist or sympathizes with a terrorist organization or supports terrorism in any way.  It does mean the odds that they’ll eventually communicate, however innocently, with someone with a terrorist (e.g., Hamas) affiliation is surprisingly high.

Your son’s college roommate posts Happy Birthday on his Facebook wall and you and every connection your son has inherits whatever baggage the college roommate brings to the party.  You get a phone call from a business colleague in Yemen and your social network and his are not only linked,  but the very fact that the call came from Yemen likely triggers intensive analysis algorithms.  Call a business colleague in Afghanistan the next day and you may have an entire data center devoted to analyzing your communications.  Now send an Egyptian friend email to congratulate him on his daughter’s marriage and NSA computers probably trigger an alert to Jack Bauer.

Borrowing from a popular saying in the fight against sexually transmitted diseases (when you have sex with someone you are having sex with every partner they’ve ever had),  when you communicate with someone you are communicating with everyone they’ve ever communicated with.  And the Six Degrees of Separation theory strongly suggests that someone in your broader communications network does in fact have a terrorist connection.

Senator Lindsey Graham made some very naïve remarks about the current NSA communication monitoring scandal: “I don’t think you’re talking to the terrorists. I know you’re not. I know I’m not. So we don’t have anything to worry about.”  Wrong Senator.  How do you know when you are talking to a constituent that you aren’t talking to a terrorist?  Or that they are talking to a relative, friend, or business associate that has in turn communicated with someone having terrorist ties?  You don’t.  Or that one of your staff members hasn’t been in that situation?  And that means the NSA is looking at your communications and for some period of time, however brief, you or members of your staff come under suspicion.

Now I’m going to give NSA some credit here.  If everyone is at some point just a phone call or Tweet away from a terrorist than that is not particularly useful to know.  Unless you want to accuse everyone and take the (in)appropriate action.  Stalin did it.  Hitler did it.  Most dictators do it.  And let’s not forget our own episode with McCarthyism.  The NSA is obviously doing a lot of work, and we’ll presume good work, creating algorithms that weed out all the incidental contacts and figure out what is truly of interest for further investigation.  But that still leaves immense room for abuse and error, which I’ll address in a part II.

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5 Responses to The NSA and Six Degrees of Separation

  1. Bob - Former DECie says:

    I work for a consulting firm and often end up on projects for a related entity that deals exclusively in government and defense work, including my last project. Even though I only had to go through a pretty minimal background check – where have you lived for the past 5 years and supply a few references vs. the tell us everywhere you’ve ever lived, every job you’ve had, where all your relatives were born, references getting personal visits, etc. official clearance I once had during my DEC days, I was required to follow the same rules as your brother concerning foreign contacts and would have been debriefed had I had any foreign contacts. So, yes, it’s gotten worse since 9/11.

  2. Brilliant Hal. This is the problem. I hope many people in the “I have nothing to hide” camp read this. The real worry though is what I anticipate you will be writing about in part 2, when governments and cliques within government start to abuse the power at their fingertips, a-la McCarthyism, just like you said.

    Everyone should be alarmed at what has happened, everyone.

    The point at which we give up our freedoms so easily is the slippery slope to becoming more like the people we are trying to protect ourselves from.

    I am from Northern Ireland, aged 41, and grew up with terrorism. We *never* gave up freedoms like this because we knew that it meant the terrorists had won.

  3. Bill Glosser says:

    This is a very tough question, one that will only get worse as time goes by. One that reverts to the very foundations of our democracy. You mention NSA, but what of other government agencies, and corporations? At least government agencies are regulated (ho ho) on what data they can collect on citizens. Corporations are not. Facebook knows who your friends are. And the friends of your friends. Google has a picture of your house and anybody can pull it up. Miss a credit card payment and magically interest rates on your other cards are jacked up. Individuals’ rights to privacy is down the tolet.

    Surveillance cameras are everywhere. Walk into a department store or mall and facial recognition software will identify you, track your actions. Is this to your good? I think not. (Well maybe at airports.)

    And then there is the prospect of robotic drones flying at 10,000 feet equiped with optics that can read news print. Think they won’t be capable of facial recognition? Have fun sunbathing in your back yard or swimming at the nude beach. Look for your photos on Facebook.

    Obviously governmental regulations and laws are not keeping pace with technology. Our rights are being subverted by corporate interests. An Orwellian society is upon us.

  4. Kent England says:

    Consider these points:
    1) The NSA will never delete or destroy this Prism database.
    2) All databases leak eventually Not the NSA. Not a contractor, but an unvetted subcontractor will leak it to an outfit like Wikileaks or the Pirate Party or Anonymous.
    3) Someone will create a service after the Prism database is leaked offering to sell the Prism information on anyone for a few dollars to anyone else who pays.
    Do you want a future employer, spouse or bank to read all of the Prism information collected on you over a period of twenty years? All your emails, FB posts, tweets, and phone logs?

  5. Brilliant, absolutely brilliant! I read George Orwell’s “1984” and Aldous Huxleys “Brave new world” sometime late 70-ties, and can now observe that the western world is now dangerously close to a path that could take us to those “utopias”…

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