How much privacy are we citizens willing to give up? How I use data mining to find the villains in White Thaw: The Helheim Conspiracy.

September 10, 2013 3:49 pm Published by Leave your thoughts

In recent months, Edward Snowden’s revelations concerning the government’s role in conducting searches through telephone databases (metadata) have made the news. Is such “spying” a reckless use of government power (and thus a slippery slope to total totalitarianism) or is it necessary to protect us from the evils of terrorism today?  I think many of us could argue both sides of this dilemma.

Once the snooping disclosures came out, I was drawn to this subject because my latest thriller, White Thaw: The Helheim Conspiracy, makes full use of knowledge gleaned from computer databases. In fact, I create a whole new agency, the Federal Center for Data Examination, to do this sort of thing. To give you some background, here’s how I explain it in my thriller:

“The Federal Center for Data Examination was established because of 9/11. Even the less perceptive members of Congress recognized that this disaster should never have happened. Clues that pointed to the event should have been used to nip the disaster in the bud…Notable among those lapses were reports from Colleen Rowley, an FBI agent from Minneapolis, Minnesota. She testified before Congress regarding information she had forwarded through channels concerning Zacarias Moussaoui, a suspected terrorist. As it turned out, those reports could have led to advance knowledge of the plane hijackings…

“At the same time that this weakness in the nation’s intelligence came to light, members of the government’s in-house scientific pool made an astute point. They stated that, although human-observed intelligence could always be overlooked or ignored, most data in the modern world were sensor detected, not human detected, and available in digital format. Foremost among such records were myriad derived parameters from satellite imagery and sensors. Other more conventional sources of data: e.g., print (newspapers), broadcast (radio, TV), were also available.”

Not mentioned above are e-mail, Internet searches, and voice-mail recordings. I make the dubious argument in White Thaw that, although federal guidelines forbid the government from listening directly to phone calls (except through a FISA court order), anything recorded is fair game. Using this assumption, I’m able to fashion an intricate deductive sequence whereby personnel at the FCDE identify a murderer who is part of the book’s larger plot.

But aside from gathering data in areas where privacy might be violated, there is so much more information that can be mined these days. As mentioned above, I am referring to various sensor data. SPOILER ALERT!  In White Thaw, automated algorithms note the co-occurrence of SOSUS (underwater microphones originally used to track submarines) and earthquake signals, leading to speculation that a submarine has gone down.

Later in the book, satellite imagery comes into play. During my days as a research meteorologist, I developed automated methods for diagnosing cloud types using visible and infrared imagery. It’s easy to imagine similar “computer vision” algorithms for detecting surface features (cars, people) of interest. You can decide for yourself whether such surveillance mocks our concept of privacy, particularly when it’s done on home soil. Drones are an obvious evolution to the proliferation of surveillance cameras on poles, buildings, and highways. Do we have a right to privacy as we drive down the road in our automobiles?  Communities and companies who issue red-light tickets probably don’t think so.

Aside from my fictional account of a central clearinghouse, where analysts monitor all sorts of data, often in real time, reality is surprisingly similar. The days when the defense of our country revolved around armies, navies, and airplanes, have changed. At least during these early years of the twenty-first century, it is the rogue individual or group that keeps our security services awake at night. We might need all the tools we can muster to avoid another 9/11.


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This post was written by paulmarktag01