The NSA Surveillance Dictionary

I meant to include this wry article in my previous post on surveillance, abuse of power, and abuse of language, but then I decided that it deserves its own post. Rather in the spirit of Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary, Philip Bump proposes that we bear in mind the NSA Surveillance Dictionary when trying to understand and write about surveillance. For example:

data (ˈdeɪtə): A lot of people unfamiliar with secrecy semantics use the term “data” to refer to a group of points of information. That is wrong.

Data is content. It is what is said in a communication. It is not information about the communication. That is metadata. Got it?

If not, please refer to the congressional testimony of Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. Asked by Senator Ron Wyden if the NSA “collect[s] any type of data at all” on Americans, Clapper responded no. Because, he said, he was thinking about the question only in terms of Wyden’s previous question, which dealt with how the NSA gathers emails and internet content on non-Americans. He wasn’t thinking about the metadata that the NSA collects on every phone call that takes place through every American phone provider — metadata which includes the phone numbers and length of the call. That isn’t data, it is metadata.

And therefore, by this definition, Clapper was hardly wrong at all.

Language, deception, and the people comprising the surveillance state

Newspeak, anyone? Language has long been a tool for persuasion and in the fight against tyranny and oppression, and in 1984 George Orwell pointed out how important language is when he featured the effects of the state’s attempts to steer and control the content and use of language. This week, more reporters are revealing the breadth and depth of the domestic reach of surveillance. Their reports also reveal the extent to which the people who make up the surveillance state are lying and deceiving us and how Orwellian their use of language has become.

Investigative reporter Charlie Savage reports in yesterday’s New York Times that the NSA does indeed search the content of communications of Americans.

While it has long been known that the agency conducts extensive computer searches of data it vacuums up overseas, that it is systematically searching — without warrants — through the contents of Americans’ communications that cross the border reveals more about the scale of its secret operations.

Not just metadata. Content. They can, and do, search for items such as names of “targets” within messages. Savage also confirms that the NSA has been playing extremely fast and loose with language, claiming that they aren’t surveiling Americans because they aren’t storing the content, but only storing metadata. Sure, they are running the messages through intercepting surveillance computers on their way in and out of the country, but since they aren’t storing them, that’s not surveillance, right?

Wrong. Wrong morally, wrong factually, wrong verbally, wrong constitutionally, and actually wrong legally, according to Senator Ron Wyden, who has seen classified briefings that the current veil of government secrecy prevents him from sharing transparently with the very people whose communications are being monitored.

Yes, I said it. Monitored. And more and more people are saying it: lying. Lied. Deliberately.

Individually and as an organization, NSA people have misled Congress, lying to the members of Congress and to the American people whom they are supposed to represent. As Alex Wilhelm notes in a TechCrunch article on the Savage story from yesterday,

…[U]nder a broad interpretation of the FISA Amendments Act, the NSA intercepts communications of U.S. citizens whose communications cross borders and mention foreign targets. You don’t have to communicate with someone being targeted directly to potentially have the NSA collect and search your email. …

The NSA has lied, repeatedly, concerning its collection of records, content, metadata, and the like of American citizens. And, frankly, it’s become a complex enough situation that it is slightly hard to parse truth from half-truth from downright lie. However, James Clapper, current Director of National Intelligence, lied to Congress — and you — about the NSA not collecting information on American citizens. All that has happened since that moment is that the depth of his lie has increased; previously, it was phone metadata that became known as a collection target. The Times’ report goes deeper in damning Clapper as mendacious. …

The new dodge is somewhat simple. Break down the NSA’s activities into two parts: collection and the search of that information. This allows the government to occlude their activities. The Times’ piece has a perfect encapsulation of the sort of idiotic verbiage that we are currently being spoon-fed: “In carrying out its signals intelligence mission, N.S.A. collects only what it is explicitly authorized to collect.”

The ambiguity of legal interpretation and a facility with strict parsing of words combine to enable the agents of the surveillance state to advance their interests in secrecy without people thinking that they are strictly lying. Note, for example, the very precise, and precisely evasive, language in this exchange that Savage describes:

At a House Intelligence Committee oversight hearing in June, for example, a lawmaker pressed the deputy director of the N.S.A., John Inglis, to say whether the agency listened to the phone calls or read the e-mails and text messages of American citizens. Mr. Inglis replied, “We do not target the content of U.S. person communications without a specific warrant anywhere on the earth.”

“Targeting” and “listening” or “reading” are very different things, and Mr. Inglis and other members of the security-silicon-industry state are very deliberate in their use and misuse of language to create the belief in the inattentive public that the surveillance state is not doing what we fear it is doing. And yet, that’s exactly what those individuals are doing, individually and as an organization. And they take advantage of the legal ambiguity of what it means to “target” someone.

And in a very good commentary on restoring trust in the government and the Internet, Bruce Schneier highlights another used of legal-linguistic evasion to enable those advancing the surveillance state to achieve their ends:

NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander has claimed that the NSA’s massive surveillance and data mining programs have helped stop more than 50 terrorist plots, 10 inside the U.S. Do you believe him? I think it depends on your definition of “helped.” We’re not told whether these programs were instrumental in foiling the plots or whether they just happened to be of minor help because the data was there. It also depends on your definition of “terrorist plots.” An examination of plots that that FBI claims to have foiled since 9/11 reveals that would-be terrorists have commonly been delusional, and most have been egged on by FBI undercover agents or informants.

Left alone, few were likely to have accomplished much of anything.

Both government agencies and corporations have cloaked themselves in so much secrecy that it’s impossible to verify anything they say; revelation after revelation demonstrates that they’ve been lying to us regularly and tell the truth only when there’s no alternative.

Amy Davidson, another reporter who has become a must-read analyst of the deception undergirding the surveillance state, also analyzes the situation that Savage’s exposé reveals and how underhandedly slippery is the use of language by the people in the surveillance state:

… a reference to “cases where NSA seeks to acquire communications about the target that are not to or from the target.” What that meant, he learned from further reporting, was that the agency thought it was allowed read Americans’ e-mails pretty freely, by “temporarily copying and then sifting through the contents of what is apparently most e-mails and other text-based communications that cross the border.” The N.S.A. comes up with a search term that is “about” a foreign target, and then reads whatever e-mails sent into and out of the country that it finds containing it. How is this not “targeting” Americans, when their communications are pulled out of the stream and studied? The answer is a language game: the person to whom those e-mails belong is not, by the N.S.A.’s definition, its target, nor—and this is somewhat new—does that person even have to be in touch with any foreign target. All you really have to be is interested in the same things as a target—or even just to use some words the N.S.A. has decided are “about” the target. …

Some of the documents released by Snowden showed that the FISA court had given the N.S.A. vague and general dispensations; others showed how it got around the question of individualized warrants entirely in the bulk collection of data like call records. This was done, in part, by redefining simple words like “relevant” and “collect”—and, now, “about.” This is the other alarming part of Savage’s piece: the further confirmation of the degradation of language. Every time the Administration says not to worry—that surveillance does not “target” Americans—the word seems to mean less and less, to the point where one expects it to argue that an American does not count as its target—with the legal protections that word implies—unless he is wearing a dartboard with a bull’s eye around his neck. [emphasis added]

Note the implications of this degradation of language. For those of you who say “I feel safer with surveillance because there are real security threats and I have nothing to hide”: how does this most recent revelation make you feel? Does the government people’s slippery and evasive use of language give you confidence that these same government people will adhere honestly and consistently to a set of rules governing their conduct, without changing what they are looking for, or what constitutes a potential threat? Or, if you thought that the people in the surveillance state were following the law, if not really the spirit of the law, how do you feel now that this belief is demonstrably false?

Please also note one final thing. I’ve made a deliberate rhetorical choice in this post: “people”. When we talk about “the state” or “the government” or “the surveillance state” or “the NSA”, we dehumanize political power. Every single one of these collective organizations that is abusing this power right now, and has been for the better part of a decade, is a group of people. People make choices. People make decisions. People make rules. People make choices about how to interpret the rules they’ve made and by which they are supposed to abide. The abuses of political power that are occurring right now through government surveillance are abuses of people by people. When we talk about surveillance as being performed by abstract groups (let alone by algorithm-driven computers), we obscure the agency of those people. We obscure the very real fact that people choose how to act.

The people who are the surveillance state are abusing their power. They are abusing the legal institutions by which each one of them, individually, is supposed to abide. They are abusing and degrading our language, which a reading of Orwell (both 1984 and Politics and the English Language) makes clear is an abuse that opens up a society to tyranny. The more we highlight these abuses, and the more aware more of us become of these abuses, the more hope we have of returning to a society of free and responsible people.

Michael Chwe’s Jane Austen, Game Theorist

As trenchant observers of human nature, great fiction writers are often very good social scientists. Jane Austen, one of my favorite authors, was a writer with great analytical depth and insight. In addition to the irony and wit for which she is famous, Austen’s writing reflects the philosophical and cultural mindset of the “long 18th century” (1688-1837, from the Glorious Revolution to Victoria’s ascendancy), including the Scottish Enlightenment and writers like Samuel Johnson. Most of the action in her plots revolves around the tension among law, social mores, and economic considerations in the choices her protagonists make. Take Sense and Sensibility, for example – facing legal constraints on inheritance and social norms against professions for women of a certain social status, how do Elinor and Marianne strive to achieve happiness with severely limited economic resources? Reading Austen through the lens of social science shows how well she analyzed human choices and the structure of social interaction, a point my friend Marc Sidwell recently made in his City AM column.

I am not alone in my appreciation of Austen as a social scientist. Michael Chwe, a game theorist in the Political Science department at UCLA, has written a new book, Jane Austen, Game Theorist (full disclosure: Michael and I went to graduate school together, and I’ve long been an admirer of his work). Michael argues that among the ways we think of Austen and her work, we should think of her as a social scientist, and indeed as an early game theorist. In May, Michael wrote this précis of his argument for a post at the PBS Newshour Business Desk blog:

This popular and beloved writer used little mathematics or economics. But Austen’s novels, written in the early 1800s, anticipated by more than a century the most fundamental game-theoretic concepts, including the emphasis on choice, the theory of utility, and the theoretical analysis of strategic thinking. In fact, Austen’s novels contain game-theoretic insights not yet superseded by modern social science. …

Austen has several names for strategic thinking, including “foresight” and “penetration.” For example, Mr. John Knightley warns Emma that Mr. Elton might be interested in her, but Emma is certain that Mr. Elton is interested in Harriet Smith. Mr. George Knightley had earlier warned Emma that Mr. Elton would never marry Harriet because of her lack of wealth. After Mr. Elton drunkenly proposes to Emma in a carriage, however, Emma admits to herself, “There was no denying that those brothers had penetration.”

Game theory assumes that a person thinks strategically about others. However, sometimes a person clearly does not. The conspicuous absence of strategic thinking, what I call “cluelessness,” is not something modern game theory tries to explain. But Austen does.

Michael’s argument proceeds along several dimensions in the book, but I’ll focus on a couple and encourage you to read the book yourself to experience his full argument (see also the resources available from UCLA to get a sense of his analysis). He points out, correctly I believe, that Austen focuses on choice in her plots – what choices do her protagonists confront, what constraints do they face (formal and informal), and what informs their individual characters that either enables them to make good choices or not? In this sense her focus is similar to that used in economics in general, not just game theory. Austen is also analytical; she is rightly famous for her deep and sensitive character development, and her pioneering use of the omniscient narrator to clue the reader in to the thought processes of her protagonists and what she as the author thinks you should think about them. Her narrative is more than descriptive (in fact, some readers are frustrated by her lack of description, and the variation in film adaptations indicates how much room for descriptive interpretation her narrative leaves!).

What’s interesting and original about Michael’s argument is his focus on Austen’s use of strategic thinking in her characters. In doing so he uses the modern tools and language of game theory to show how game-theoretic her perspective was, and I believe he does so pretty convincingly. He relies on the modern idea of strategic interaction to discuss the interdependence and interaction of the choices and behavior of individuals, and the idea that an external focus on the thoughts, incentives (motivations), and actions of others informs individual choices. For example, “[t]here are more than fifty strategic plans specifically named ‘schemes’ in Austen’s six novels” (p. 108), and “… in Austen’s novels, people calculate all the time without the slightest intimation that calculation is difficult, ‘cold’, or unnatural” (p. 109). Strategic thinking is not inherently mathematical, negative, or manipulative, but rather reflects an ability to imagine likely outcomes of various scenarios of interactions (a theme that Austen and Adam Smith share).

One concern I have for making this argument persuasive to our humanities colleagues, though, is a rhetorical one. We economists use the language of game theory deriving from von Neumann and Morgenstern’s adoption of the language of the “strategic” in the 1940s, a language that barely existed during Austen’s lifetime. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “strategy” first appeared in James’ New Military Dictionary in 1810, with “strategic” appearing in 1825. The language we use in economics differs considerably from Austen’s, so Michael’s analysis of her language is important. For example, the Jane Austen’s World blog points to a recent Freakonomics podcast on Michael’s book, and shows a word count of Austen’s words that reflect what we would call strategic thinking: scheme, sagacity, penetration, foresight, calculating. Michael relies heavily on the modern language of the “strategic”, and I think his argument may have a stronger foothold in the humanities if he had bridged a bit more among the modern economic language, Austen’s language, and more traditional literary analysis.

Although he does not employ much of the Scottish Enlightenment literature in his argument, Michael also points out some facets of Austen that reflect the ideas of Hume and Smith in particular. For example, he lists as one of Austen’s innovations that she has some of her characters strategize about themselves (i.e., look at their incentives and their opportunity sets from an external perspective) because Austen is well aware of the potential for personal bias in evaluating one’s own behavior (p. 157). This aspect of Austen’s writing is similar to Smith’s development of the psychological device of the spectator in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, and his analysis of the biases inherent in evaluating one’s own behavior – our spectators are inherently partial, and we can live more happily and peacefully with others in society to the extent that we can view and judge our actions as an impartial spectator.

Michael is also right to evaluate Austen’s insights into what he calls “cluelessness”, or the inability of a character to understand the individual and subjective nature of the choices others make in the situations in which they find themselves. His analysis of the different ways that Austen thinks people can be clueless is the biggest strength of the book.

One thing that’s not clear in the argument is whether or not Michael distinguishes, or thinks Austen distinguishes, between strategic thinking and intelligence. A more typical interpretation of Austen’s use of phrases like “quick-witted” to describe characters like Elizabeth Bennet and Emma Woodhouse is that they are intelligent. Do strategic thinking and intelligence map into each other in any systematic way for Austen’s characters? I think they do, and are highly correlated but not the same. Both may arise from natural endowments and temperaments, both may be cultivated through education and experience. I’d like to have seen this compare/contrast explored more in the book, especially given the sophistication of her character development that makes her strategic (or intelligent?) characters not strategic all the time. Even her strategic thinkers are sometimes clueless, or are clueless in ways that they discover and amend through the experience of interaction with others. The relationship between Elizabeth and Darcy is the canonical example of this nuance, because they are both clueless in meaningful ways while being highly strategic in others.

Social scientists, and game theorists in particular, examine the structure of social interaction. One reason for the longevity of Austen’s popularity and influence (indicated most recently by her forthcoming appearance on the £10 note) has been precisely her insightful analyses of the structure of social interaction, and thus her work reflects game theoretic thinking. One final recommendation for Michael’s book is that he encourages thinking of game theory and strategic thinking not as a sterile, mathematical set of tools, but a more general analytical way of exploring social interaction and interdependence.

Ten words you need to stop misspelling

Lynne Kiesling

The Oatmeal is a great one-man operation with outstanding, witty visual representations of a range of topics, including 10 Things You Need To Stop Tweeting About. For this one he earns my undying gratitude:

10 Words You Need To Stop Misspelling

Love.Love.Love. Will be sharing with all of my students. I wish I could copy it onto a card and hand it out on the street, like some grammar evangelist. His explanation of the differences among the homonyms “their”, “they’re”, and “there” is hilarious. But I don’t know what he’s got against dolphins …

No results found for “true number may be lower or higher”

Michael Giberson

The true number of hits for the “true number may be higher” are lower than reported.

Mind Hacks (via Cheap Talk and Marginal Revolution) points out news reports often stress when stating an estimated value that the “true number may be higher,” but infrequently that the “true number may be lower.” The primary evidence cited is a comparison of Google search results for the two phrases, with “higher” shown at 20,300 hits and “lower” shown at a mere 3 hits. (I found about 43,000 hits for higher and about 5,300 hits for “lower”, so Google may be targeting results a bit based on search history.)

Ah, but what about the careful journalist who reports that the “true number may be higher or lower“?  Searching for “true number may be higher” will inadvertently capture these quotes as well, biasing the results.

However, the “true number may be higher or lower” only produced 412 hits in my Google search, so the bias is small relative to the numbers above.  Perhaps there are few careful journalists, or many careful journalists who are afflicted by less discriminating copy editors.

No one, at least as indicated by my Google search results, says  the “true number may be lower or higher“. (Of course, sometime soon Google will index this page, and “lower or higher” will gain an entry in that vast catalog.)

The trouble with two-handed economists

Michael Giberson

An economist is quoted in Platts’ Megawatt Daily commenting on a proposal within ERCOT to apply the same performance standards to wind farms as apply to other generators:

On the one hand, it is desirable to have all market players working under the same rules, but on the other hand, rules are usually made with the existing status quo in mind, and when new technologies come along, they don’t always fit neatly with the pre-existing rules.

That certainly does sound like an economist:

  • Stereotypical “On the one hand”/”on the other hand” phrasing? Check.
  • Long, complicated wording of point without much content? Check.
  • Bonus for more than 40 words in a sentence? Check.
  • Double bonus for using five commas in a sentence? Check.

Yes, unfortunately is looks like I was quoted correctly.  At least they spelled my name right and mentioned my employer: “Michael Giberson, an economist at the Texas Tech University Center for Energy Commerce.”

Any publicity is good publicity, right?

Don’t worry, the city council will plusgood monitor Big Brother to prevent abuse

Michael Giberson

So I was quietly reading about Austin, Texas electric power developments in the Austin American-Statesman (“Mueller becoming a lab for energy: Research plans, neighbors’ efforts converging“) when I stumbled across a remark of such – I don’t know what to call it – irony? Orwellian newspeak? Not quite sure what to say, so I’ll just share.

Some elements of the smart grid are already working, Duncan said. For instance, the utility can turn off air conditioners remotely for a few minutes when the system is close to exceeding capacity. The utility does this only with customers who agree ahead of time.

However, in California, regulatory officials withdrew a proposal for a similar program this year after critics accused them of encouraging Big Brother policies.

Duncan said the concerns are unwarranted and noted that the City Council oversees Austin Energy, making political recourse possible.

Really? We don’t have to worry about Big Brother policies because the City Council is watching over everything?

Well then, everything is doubleplusgood.

Actually I’m not too worried about Big Brother in cases in which customers can choose whether or not to participate, and can choose their own competitive retail energy service providers.  What? Consumers can’t choose their own retail energy supplier in Austin because the city government has locked them into the city’s own electric utility?

I hope the Ministry of Plenty is keeping a close eye on the city policies….