Thursday, July 25, 2013

Jonathan Swift Slow Claps From His Grave

Congratulations are in order for Holman Jenkins of the Wall Street Journal: he has penned a truly devastating double-Swiftian satire of both the NSA call data warehousing program and the Wall Street Journal editorial page's disdain for civil liberties: while the rest of us were discussing whether the program goes too far, and trying to carefully weigh the balance between privacy and security, Jenkins kicks it up a notch and suggests that the problem with the program is that not enough government agencies have access to the data of every phone call made by everyone (Metadata Liberation Movement, WSJ, July 23, 2013).

How do we know that this must be satire?  He does a pretty good job keeping it on the level, making it seem completely serious, but there are a few dead giveaways, howlers that would just be too stupid to put into print if it weren't.

For one thing, he starts with the following quote:

"It is not rational to give up massive amounts of privacy and liberty to stay marginally safer from a threat that, however scary, endangers the average American far less than his or her daily commute," writes Conor Friedersdorf in the Atlantic, expressing a common view [about counter-terrorism surveillance].

A perfectly reasonable sentiment.  But he starts to hint in the very next paragraph:

Another kind of loss of liberty comes when our tax dollars are spent on useless programs.

A nice setup: this is the Wall Street Journal editorial page, so we expect every reasonable paragraph to be followed with "...and taxes are too high."  At this point, you think he's going to run straight up the middle, accuse the Obama administration of malfeasance for funding a hugely bloated program, and suggest that, in the name of liberty, freedom, and apple pie, we should cut the whole damn thing, and return the money to the oil companies they took it from.  But that's exactly when he feints to the left!

The biggest problem, then, with metadata surveillance may simply be that the wrong agencies are in charge of it. One particular reason why this matters is that the potential of metadata surveillance might actually be quite large but is being squandered by secret agencies whose narrow interest is only looking for terrorists.

I know what you're saying: "This might be silly, but it's not patently asinine."  True.  But Jenkins is just getting started.  His prime, leading example of an important problem plaguing everyday Americans that can be solved by giving MOAR METADATA to every law enforcement agency in the country?  Wait for it...highway serial killers.

Highway serial killers are enough of a problem that the FBI formed a task force devoted to them, its Highway Serial Killers Initiatives. Instead of finding a suspect and trying to tie him to bodies, could metadata help us quickly find suspects based on the locations of bodies?

How would this Magical Metadata help us solve this scourge of highway serial killers?  Who knows?  Jenkins doesn't even offer a theory.  It's not clear that he actually even knows what the word "metadata" means, apart from "something the government wants very, very badly, so we should give it to them."  Other scourges worth giving the government the entire list of people you have ever called?  Anticipating traffic jams.  At some point, he has apparently shifted from talking about phone call metadata to some other kind of data entirely, but it's not clear when that happened.  He still must be talking about something related to government surveillance data, because otherwise, it would sound like he is simply advocating using data to try to predict traffic jams, an idea which is about as original as using data to try to predict the weather.  He seems to be under the apprehension that prepending the term meta- to these observations transforms them from "stringing together this week's trending twitter topics into barely coherent sentences" to "stunningly original insight."

It's all downhill from there.  He marches straight off into stupid-town, saying things like, "'Big data' is only as good as the algorithms used to find out things worth finding out," and "Our guess is that big data techniques would pop up way too many false positives at first, and only considerable learning and practice would allow such techniques to become a useful tool," which seems simultaneously ignorant and vapid.  But that's just Jenkins pulling your leg again.  Here, he's making fun of the history of the government sinking vast sums of money into black box "algorithms" to look for terrorism and then trying to bury it.  Surely, he couldn't have written such an article without having familiarized himself with the topic in question.  For that matter, why does the WSJ editorial board need to make "guesses"?  Why not let someone knowledgeable write the column?

But he saves the real zinger for the end: after trumpeting highway serial killers as proof that we need more people knowing when you called your grandma, he caps it off with this:

Most of all, it would allow these techniques to be put to work on solving problems that are actual problems for most Americans, which terrorism isn't.

Thank you sir.  Your contributions to the art of satire will be duly noted for generations hence.

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