Posted by: John Erickson | July 29, 2013

Imagination, Policymaking and Web Science

On 26 July the The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press released Few See Adequate Limits on NSA Surveillance Program…But More Approve than Disapprove which they’ve summarized in this post. Here’s a snippet…

…(D)espite the insistence by the president and other senior officials that only “metadata,” such as phone numbers and email addresses, is being collected, 63% think the government is also gathering information about the content of communications – with 27% believing the government has listened to or read their phone calls and emails…Nonetheless, the public’s bottom line on government anti-terrorism surveillance is narrowly positive. The national survey by the Pew Research Center, conducted July 17-21 among 1,480 adults, finds that 50% approve of the government’s collection of telephone and internet data as part of anti-terrorism efforts, while 44% disapprove. These views are little changed from a month ago, when 48% approved and 47% disapproved.

A famous conclusion of the 9/11 Commission was that a chronic and widespread “failure of imagination” led to the United States leaving its defenses down and enabling Bin Laden’s plot to succeed. This is a bit of an easy defense, and history has shown it to not be completely true, but I think in general we do apply a kind of double-think when contemplating extreme scenarios. I think we inherently moderate our assumptions about how far our opponents might go to win and the range of methods they will consider. How we limit our creativity is complex, but it is in part fueled by how well informed we are.

The Pew results would be more interesting if the same questions had been asked before the Edward Snowden thing, because it would have created a “baseline” of sorts for how expansive our thinking was and is. What the NSA eruption has shown us is that our government is willing to collect data at a much greater scale than most people imagined. The problem lies with that word, imagined. What if we asked instead, “What is POSSIBLE?” Not “what is possible within accepted legal boundaries,” but rather “what is possible, period, given today’s technology?” For example, what if the NSA were to enlist Google’s data center architects to help them design a state-of-the-art platform?

Key lawmakers no doubt were briefed on the scale of the NSA’s programs years ago, but it is unlikely most of the legislators or their staffers were or are capable of fully appreciating what is possible with the data collected, esp. at scale. One wonders who is asking serious, informed questions about what is possible with the kind and scale of data collected? Who is evaluating the models, etc? Who is on the outside, using science to make educated guesses about what’s “inside?”

Many versions of the web science definition declare our motivation ultimately to be “…to protect the Web.” We see the urgency and the wisdom in this call as we watch corporations and governments construct massive platforms that enable them to monitor, analyze and control large swaths and facets of The Global Graph. It is incumbent upon web scientists to not simply study the Web, but to use the knowledge we gain to ensure that society understands what influences the evolution of that Web. This includes the daunting task of educating lawmakers.

Why study web science? Frankly, because most people don’t know what they’re talking about. On the issues of privacy, tracking and security, most people have no idea what is possible in terms of large-scale data collection, what can be learned by applying modern analytics to collected network traffic, and what the interplay is between technological capabilities and laws. Fewer still have a clue how to shape the policy debate based on real science, especially a science rooted in the study of the Web.

Web science as a discipline gives us hope that there will be a supply of knowledgeable — indeed, imaginative — workers able to contribute to that discussion.

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