Friday, January 17, 2014

BBC ignorance on mass surveillance again

I was listening to the BBC Radio 5 Live station on the way back from Milton Keynes this evening. They noted President Obama made a speech about reforming NSA practices.

Around about 5.55pm they spoke to a correspondent in Washington. She got almost everything about the Snowden mass surveillance revelations wrong.

She uncritically repeated the myth that the 9/11 attacks would have been prevented if only the US intelligence and security services had known where Mohamed Atta was when he had made a phone call to a terrorist suspect in Syria. She assumed  the magic terrorist catching mass surveillance apparatus now run by the NSA would have pinpointed his location and led to his arrest.


Atta was known to the intelligence and security services and considered a threat. Police, intelligence and security systems are imperfect. Even in 2001 they processed vast amounts of imperfect intelligence information. At least one FBI agent believed Atta to pose a serious and imminent threat. That belief got lost in the noise of the intelligence information processes, suspects and issues the agencies were then dealing with, to the degree that they did not detain Atta or his associates and prevent the attack.

There was too much data noise in the system and they lost him. You cannot cure that excess of data noise problem by treating the entire population as suspects, engaging in suspicionless, blanket collection and processing of personal data. You cannot find the real terrorist by assuming everyone is a threat.

Mass data collectors can dig deeply into the digital persona of anyone but don’t have the resources to do so with everyone. The resultant pursuit of false positive leads mean the real bad guys often get lost in the noise, as happened with the 9/11 attackers including Atta who were known to US authorities but not considered sufficiently important to intercept. Finding the terrorist is a needle in a haystack problem, and you don't make it easier by throwing more hay on the stack. It is mathematically impossible for such mass surveillance to be an effective tool for catching terrorists.

The BBC correspondent also implied that there was no problem with the blanket, suspicionless, mass collection of personal data that is going on and that Obama's plan to continue this practice but privatise it would cure most concerns.


I'm tempted to get into a long dissection of this dangerous meme but I'll keep it to a couple of points -

Blanket, suspicionless, untrammeled, mass surveillance is corrosive and wrong-headed. The implied notion that decimating privacy is not just the solution but the obvious solution to the security, terrorism or serious crime problem is naive. Spreading that invidious notion uncritically is irresponsible of the BBC.

Blanket, suspicionless, untrammeled, mass surveillance is dangerous no matter who the government tasks with the job of actually collecting, processing and storing the data.

There is no magic computer solution to the rare preventing terrorism problem.

Don’t get me wrong. Law enforcement and security services need to be able to move with the times, use modern digital technologies intelligently in their work and through targeted data preservation regimes – not a mass surveillance regime – engage in technological surveillance of individuals about whom they have reasonable cause to harbor suspicion. That is not, however, the same as building an infrastructure of mass surveillance.
The BBC has an appalling record on the reporting of the Snowden affair. I know there are some very smart people in the BBC who get the serious implications of what Edward Snowden has put into the public domain. But the collective ignorance of the corporation as a public service broadcasting institution has almost gone so far as to have become a public menace.

It's hard to decide if their failures are worse when they follow the government wish for them to ignore the issues or when on the odd occasion they do get round to it, it is often to spread the corrosive memes of governments caught in the act... "nothing to hide nothing to fear", "only there for your protection", "essential for national security", "privacy must be balanced with security"...

As a result of their complete failure to fulfil their public service remit on the Snowden affair, every suit, producer, presenter, correspondent and journalist at the BBC should be made to repeat at least a hundred times a day:
Quite simply an infrastructure of mass surveillance is not conducive to the public good.
Perhaps that might be a little long for the attention span the corporation believe they cater to.  How about
Mass surveillance is not conducive to the public good.
Maybe something a little simpler: 
Mass surveillance is bad for you and it doesn't work
That might do it.
Mass surveillance is bad for you and it doesn't work
Mass surveillance is bad for you and it doesn't work
Mass surveillance is bad for you and it doesn't work...
To the good folk at the Beeb who do get Snowden - I know how frustrating it can be when an institution you care about gets really important things wrong.  Good luck with what will undoubtedly be heroic, exhausting, painful and sometimes risky internal efforts to turn your supertanker round.

BBC page screening parts of Obama's NSA reform speech.

Channel 4 News on the speech here.

Update: thanks to @eldonnn for alerting me to the error in my original post.