Against The Gods - The Remarkable Story Of Risk

Against The Gods –
Against The Odds
by Michael Maynard
January 28, 2014

There is risk associated with every activity we do. We subconsciously calculate our risk vs. reward options before taking action. But how much risk is being reduced by the actions of the National Security Agency?

There is a brilliant book about the history of risk, “Against The Gods: The Remarkable Story Of Risk” written by Peter L. Bernstein. In the introduction, Mr. Bernstein writes,

The revolutionary idea that defines the boundary between modern times and the past is the mastery of risk: the notion that the future is more than a whim of the gods and that men and women are not passive before nature. Until human beings discovered a way across that boundary, the future was a mirror of the past or the murky domain of oracles and soothsayers who held a monopoly over knowledge of anticipated events.

In “Somebody’s Watching Me? Does The Department Of Homeland Security Really Reduce Risk?”, we discussed Type I and Type II errors, which are about risk analysis. What happens if you make the Type II error that there will be no more terrorists attacks on US soil and there are? What percentage risk is acceptable for the federal government agencies involved to make this Type II error?

In all of the attention about the actions of Edward Snowden to expose the secrets of the United States spy/security agencies, the national discussion about what is the level of acceptable risk of another attack has not occurred. Whether you believe Snowden is noble in his actions, or like me, you believe he is a criminal who took on a whistle blower role no one asked him to do, the question about what is the level of acceptable risk for homeland security remains unanswered.

Is Edward Snowden an oracle or soothsayer who can predict the future? He seems to think so in his recent Christmas address:

“Hi, and Merry Christmas. I’m honored to have the chance to speak with you and your family this year.

Recently, we learned that our governments, working in concert, have created a system of worldwide mass surveillance, watching everything we do.

Great Britain’s George Orwell warned us of the danger of this kind of information. The types of collection in the book — microphones and video cameras, TVs that watch us — are nothing compared to what we have available today. We have sensors in our pockets that track us everywhere we go.

Think about what this means for the privacy of the average person. A child born today will grow up with no conception of privacy at all. They’ll never know what it means to have a private moment to themselves — an unrecorded, unanalyzed thought. And that’s a problem, because privacy matters. Privacy is what allows us to determine who we are and who we want to be.

The conversation occurring today will determine the amount of trust we can place both in the technology that surrounds us and the government that regulates it. Together, we can find a better balance. End mass surveillance. And remind the government that if it really wants to know how we feel, asking is always cheaper than spying.”

For everyone out there listening, thank you, and Merry Christmas.”

Snowden has recently stated that the United States government is trying to kill him, without providing any details of whether or how any attempts have been made. He said this after Attorney General Eric Holder’s remarked about the willingness to negotiate a plea deal with his lawyers, if Snowden were to return to the US.

““We’ve always indicated… that the notion of clemency was not something we were willing to consider,” Holder said at the University of Virginia. “Were he to come back to the United States and enter a plea, we would engage with his lawyers.”

A federal criminal complaint filed in June charges Snowden with three felonies: unauthorized disclosure of national defense information, unauthorized disclosure of communications intelligence information and theft of government property. Holder’s comments at UVA came following similar remarks he made in an MSNBC interview earlier Thursday,also expressing an openness to plea talks with Snowden. In those comments, the attorney general did not suggest that Snowden’s flight from the country would be an obstacle to entering discussions with lawyers for him about resolving the case.

Snowden’s big “revelation” about the NSA collecting and analyzing telephone records has been extremely overblown by the media’s desire for a big expose. A longtime telephone company employee describes what the call data obtained contained – metadata.

I worked with… METADATA! Swam in it, day in and day out, for 10 years. I became expert at SQL queries. Ask me to search a number and how many calls it made, and my query would have an answer in a few seconds.

Of course, what I couldn’t tell you is to whom that number belonged. I couldn’t tell if it belonged to Ethan Kowalski of Peoria, IL, or Yves Hubbert of the Troisieme Arrondissement. I could tell you there was a call placed from Peoria to Paris, and bill accordingly. But that was about it.

What is this phone metadata of which I speak? Again, glad you asked.

The typical call detail record, or CDR, had these pertinent bits of information:

* Account number, so we knew who to bill
* Leg 1, or originating number
* Leg 2, or destination number. Combining legs 1 and 2 gave us a per minute cost.
* Call duration. That let us combine legs 1 and 2 into a billable structure.

And that was it. The account number was just that, a number. Sure, we knew who it was, but only because we had a separate database with customer information. Someone seeing our CDRs without that knowledge wouldn’t know to whom the account belong.

Legs 1 and 2 were just phone numbers. No identifying features.

And, as I said, I worked for several companies in my telecom career. All had the same basic metadata structure.

Metadata is data about data, nothing more. Techterms.com defines metadata as:

Metadata describes other data. It provides information about a certain item’s content. For example, an image may include metadata that describes how large the picture is, the color depth, the image resolution, when the image was created, and other data. A text document’s metadata may contain information about how long the document is, who the author is, when the document was written, and a short summary of the document.

What Snowden’s actions did was scare the technology fearing public into thinking that the NSA was listening into each and every telephone call made. That idea is fallacious and just plays into the paranoia of many that the US has become a repressive police state. It is not technically nor humanly possible to listen in on the 3 billion phone calls made in the US every day or the 12.4 billion phone calls made daily throughout the world, (as research from the University College of the North has determined). Daily, the agency also collects 200 million text messages from around the world.

The NSA does numerical and statistical analysis on the telephone metadata to determine the frequency of calls made to and from each number, including how long and when the calls were made. Of the 12.4 billion calls, only 500,000 to 1,000,000 are potentially of interest for suspicious behavior. Further quantitative and qualitative analysis is performed by humans to determine whether those patterns indicate whether any actual threats are developing.

It is currently being debated whether the metadata collection program is constitutional. In December, a federal court judge rules that it is not, but stayed his decision pending appeal.

“The government, in its understandable zeal to protect our homeland, has crafted a counter-terrorism program with respect to telephone metadata that strikes the balance based in large part on a thirty-four year old Supreme Court precedent,” Judge Richard Leon wrote, “the relevance of which has been eclipsed by technological advances and a cell-phone centric lifestyle heretofore inconceivable. …

The government does not cite a single instance in which analysis of the NSA’s bulk metadata collection actually stopped an imminent attack, or otherwise aided the government in achieving any objective that was time-sensitive in nature,” he wrote in his opinion. “I have serious doubts about the efficacy of the metadata collection program as a means of conducting time-sensitive investigations in cases involving imminent threats of terrorism.”

The NSA’s budget is currently $10.8 billion, second only to the Central Intelligence Agency’s budget . This figure represents a 53 percent increase from 2004. 70 percent of this budget goes to defense contractors, like those who hired Edward Snowden. NSA spending is divided into four major categories:

Management, Facilities and Support: $5.3 billion.
Data Collection Expenses: $2.5 billion.
Data Processing and Exploitation: $1.6 billion.
Data Analysis: $1.5 billion.

NSA Spending Analysis

The Four Categories Of NSA Spending

We still don’t know how much risk that $10.8 billion reduced. I believe the nation is still traumatized by the events of 9/11/2001. Since that fateful day, $7.6 trillion has been spent on defense and national security, $635.9 billion on homeland security. It’s time to ask and have answered where all that taxpayer’s money has been spent and how much safer we are as a result. The public wants zero risk of being attacked. Nothing is without risk.

As citizens, we need to press our Senate and Congressional leaders to find out more about the scope of NSA’s activities and publicly present their findings.

We do not need to know every detail about what kind of surveillance/intelligence gathering techniques are used, but we do need to know why they are used.

We need to know how the risk assessments are being made and the amount of risk we have.

We need to know what that $10.8 billion (and much more if you add the budgets of the other agencies involved in homeland security and other types of intelligence gathering) is doing to reduce risk.

We need to know what activities those four categories above involve.

How can the public understand the risk vs. reward of these activities  for which our tax dollars are being spent if we don’t know what these activities are?

How can we determine whether the country is spending the right amount of money or needs to spend more or less?

And what levels of risk are involved if we spend more or less?

Our political leaders and the public should ask and get definitive and verifiable answers about how many real threats have been stopped and how much it has cost to stop those threats. The NSA has stated that this activity has disrupted 54 terrorist activities, 42 plots foiled and 12 individuals contributing to terrorism captured. Only 13 of these were direct threats to the United States. Part of the problem of doing this type of risk assessment is that it is hard to assess the risk of events that did not happen.

Are we fighting against losing odds or are the odds in out favor? Can the gods of history and fate be changed or are we fighting a losing battle against them? There are 316 million people for whom $10.8 billion being spent to keep them as close to zero risk of terrorist attack as possible. But there is always some risk and that risk changes over time.

What and how much are you willing to risk to find out?

You can fight against the gods. The gods always win.
You can fight against the odds. The odds usually win.
You can fight against the gods and fight against the odds. That fight never ends.

We didn’t need a self-righteous, self-aggrandizing, over-dramatizing kid to tell us that. Nor did we need two meritricious “journalists” and a complicit and sensationalizing media to promote and keep promoting his actions. We already knew.

Columnist/Journalist/Writer/Book Editor Co-Founder/CEO of Azimuth Partners, high tech consulting firm for 30+ years. Former columnist for the Washington Post/Newsweek syndicate.

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