Guest post from ALBERT-LÁSZLÓ BARABÁSI
The recent revelation that the National Security Agency collects the personal data of United States citizens, allies and enemies alike has broken the traditional model governing the bond between science and society.
Most breakthrough technologies have dual uses. Think of atomic energy and the nuclear bomb or genetic engineering and biological weapons. This tension never gives way. Our only hope to overcoming it is to stop all research.
But that is unrealistic. Instead, the model we scientists follow is simple: We need to be transparent about the potential use and misuse of our trade. We publish our results, making them accessible to everyone. And when we do see the potential for abuse, we speak up, urging society to reach a consensus on how to keep the good but outlaw the bad.
As the NSA secretly developed its unparalleled surveillance program, relying on a mixture of tools rooted in computer and social sciences, this model failed. Scientists whose work fueled these advances failed to forcefully articulate the collateral dangers their tools pose. And a political leadership, intoxicated by the power of these tools, failed to keep their use within the strict limits of the Constitution.
It’s easy to see why this happened. After all, the benefits of Big Data and the science behind it are hard to overlook. Beyond the many digital applications that make our life increasingly easy today, data science holds promise for emergency response and for stopping the next virus from turning into a deadly pandemic. It also holds the key to our personal health, since our activity patterns and disease history are more predictive of our future disease than our genes.
For researchers involved in basic science, like myself, Big Data is the Holy Grail: It promises to unearth the mathematical laws that govern society at large. Motivated by this challenge, my lab has spent much of the past decade studying the activity patterns of millions of mobile phone consumers, relying on call patterns provided by mobile phone companies. This data was identical to what NSA muscled away from providers, except that ours was anonymized, processed to help research without harming the participants. In a series of research papers published in the journals Science and Nature, my team confirmed the promise of Big Data by quantifying the predictability of our daily patterns, the threat digital viruses pose to mobile phones and even the reaction people have when a bomb goes off beside them.
We also learned that when it comes to our behavior, we can’t use only two scales — one for good and the other for bad. Rather, our activity patterns are remarkably diverse: For any act labeled “unusual” or “anomalous,” such as calling people at odd hours or visiting sensitive locations outside our predictable daily routine, we will find millions of individuals who do just that as part of their normal routine. Hence identifying terrorist intent is more difficult than finding a needle in a haystack — it’s more like spotting a particular blade of hay.
Let’s face it: Powered by the right type of Big Data, data mining is a weapon. It can be just as harmful, with long-term toxicity, as an atomic bomb. It poisons trust, straining everything from human relations to political alliances and free trade. It may target combatants, but it cannot succeed without sifting through billions of data points scraped from innocent civilians. And when it is a weapon, it should be treated like a weapon.
To repair the damage already done, we researchers, with a keen understanding of the promise and the limits of our trade, must work for a world that uses science in an ethical manner. We can look at the three pillars of nuclear nonproliferation as a model for going forward.
The good news is that the first pillar, the act of nonproliferation itself, is less pertinent in this context: Many of the technologies behind NSA’s spying are already in the public domain, a legacy of the openness of the scientific enterprise. Yet the other two pillars, disarmament and peaceful use, are just as important here as they were for nuclear disarmament. We must inspect and limit the use of this new science for military purposes and, to restore trust, we must promote the peaceful use of these technologies.
We can achieve this only in alliance with the society at large, together amending universal human rights with the right to data ownership and the right of safe passage.
Data ownership states that the data pertaining to my activity, like my browsing pattern, shopping habits or reading history, belongs to me, and only I control its use. Safe passage is the expectation that the information I choose to transfer will reach its intended beneficiaries without being tapped by countless electronic ears along the way. The NSA, by indiscriminately tapping all communication pipelines, has degraded both principles.
Science can counteract spying overreach by developing tools and technologies that, by design, lock in these principles. A good example of such a design is the Internet itself, built to be an open system to which anyone could connect without vetting by a central authority. It took decades for governments around the world to learn to censor its openness.
This summer, while visiting my hometown in Transylvania, I had the opportunity to talk with a neighbor who spent years as a political prisoner. Once freed, for decades to come, he knew that everything he uttered was listened to and recorded. He received transcripts of his own communications after the fall of communism. They spanned seven volumes. It was toxic and dehumanizing, a way of life that America has repeatedly denounced and fought against.
So why are we beginning to spread communism 2.0 around the world, a quarter-century after the Iron Curtain’s collapse? This is effectively what NSA surveillance has become. If we scientists stay silent, we all risk becoming digitally enslaved.
Posted with permission.
Posted with permission.
Albert-László Barabási is a physicist and network scientist at Northeastern University and Harvard Medical School, and the author of “Bursts: The Hidden Patterns Behind Everything We Do.”