If I was running the NSA I wouldn’t bother with setting up some massive computer farm and attempting to tap into every phone call and internet transaction to gather intelligence. Too much information is not helpful if you don’t have the resources to devote to deciphering. Nor would I spend zillions of dollars on massive computer farms to gather and process the relatively smaller amounts of data like which phone called which other phone. Just text messages average over 500 Billion a month. There is simply too much information for one or even thousands of computers to keep track of. Too much Input bogs any system down. This is a common problem with all control systems.
Back in the 80s, most digital heating and cooling systems for a building was run from a single computer. You brought all the information into one computer, this information would include hundreds of sensors and switches. The computer would process the information then provide outputs to dozens of motors and actuators. As these systems grew, it became obvious that there was a major problem with one centrally located massive control system. There was simply too many inputs and outputs for a computer to keep track of. So a system was designed to distribute the control. So instead of one central computer, the building would be run with many little networked computers. If one of the little computers found that the system it ran was going out of control it would contact the server and send out an alarm. Then a technician would be dispatched to figure out what the trouble was. Distributed control is standard in the industry now. It is how the internet works, and it is how cell phones work.
The NSA doesn’t need a server farm to crunch numbers. They don’t even need to listen to phone calls or track who called who. What the NSA needs are millions of little computers, each one analyzing and integrating data on its own. These little computers would of course need lots of complex sensors that listen in to every conversation, read every text, chat, and e-mail, to gather information. It should be small and mobile, and ideally be attached to one person. These computers would be on all the time and analyze data and attempt to match a profile that the NSA may be interested in. Then if the profile matches it uploads the data to the NSA. The trick is getting everyone to wear a little computer, charge it when necessary, replace it when damaged, and maintain it properly. Oh and as a bonus wouldn’t it be nice if the public paid for the privilege of carrying around one of these little computers?
They may already be doing just that.
Most people have no idea how many sensors the standard smart phone has built in to it. Sure you know about the camera and a microphone. But it also has an accelerometer, shock sensors, GPS, and gyroscopes to sense position and orientation. Most also have a compass and thermometer. Think of all the information your smart phone could gather about you.
So it isn’t all that much of a leap to think that the NSA could use smartphones to monitor citizens. Some people believe that they are already doing this. But all the information in the world is useless unless it is processed in some meaningful way. And there are far too many people and too few “agents” to do the listening, and a central computer, or even hundreds of super computers, would become overwhelmed by the billions of conversations and text messages sent and received each day.
Why not go the next step and distribute the processing of the information by using the computers inside of the smart phones? If the phone is running a really clever application, it would only need upload data to the NSA if your behavior matches a very specific set of profiles. The key to this approach is that the phone does all the computing work developing a profile of its environment, it only needs to send any information to the NSA if the profile rings any bells. Of course the master computer in Delaware could update the phones anytime a profile changes.
All they have to do it install this app on every smart phone and tablet pc in the world. This sounds like a difficult thing to do, but it could have already been done. And we volunteered. Facebook is a good example of one form of voluntary distributed surveillance. So is Linked-In and Google+. Any app would do. Maybe the NSA is analyzing your behavior while you play Angry Birds.
Eventually we may all be working for the NSA, whether we want to or not.
There is some comfort in the fact that this idea is way to cost effective, efficient, and diabolical, for our government to even consider. It would be laughed out of committee.
But what about the private sector?