Online Paranoia and Context

December 3, 2009

Years ago, I met the president of a company in Houston, Texas. I recall hearing that person recounting some of his management insights in the construction business. One catchphrase he used to make a point had to do with paranoia and knowing that everyone was out to get you. Years later I read Andy Grove’s Only the Paranoid Survive: How to Exploit the Crisis Points That Challenge Every Company. Similar idea: some awareness of what the competition is doing is essential to focus an organization’s energies. Over the years, I have worked on a couple of jobs in which paranoia was a useful ingredient like basil on a Food Channel’s winning pizza recipe. In certain work situations, a dash of paranoia is what separates those who survive from those who become the concrete in a skyscraper or the dough in a calzone.

I read “8 Million Reasons for Real Surveillance Oversight”, and you may want to scan the article as well. The main point in my opinion is:

My point is this: The vast majority of the government’s access to individuals’ private data is not reported, either due to a failure on DOJ’s part to supply the legally required statistics, or due to the fact that information regarding law enforcement requests for third party stored records (such as email, photos and other data located in the cloud) is not currently required to be collected or reported. As for the millions of government requests for geo-location data, it is simply disgraceful that these are not currently being reported…but they should be.

If you want a catalog of examples of surveillance activities, the article provides a useful starting point.

Let me conclude with several observations:

  1. Depending on one’s job, these activities may have a different context. For example, if one is working on a project when there are other factors in play, then the need to use available resources to address a matter is a responsible and necessary activity. I think of information has an instrument, and the use of that instrument depends on context. Without context, I find it difficult to make an informed judgment about “shoulds,” “woulds” and “coulds”.
  2. Some engaged in law enforcement have experienced significant increases in the amount and type of work that must be done on the “job”. As a result, like any process oriented professional, when software can perform certain work more efficiently, it makes perfect sense to me to use new methods to manage a task. I find it typical of public companies, start ups, and government organizations to try different techniques and determine which work and which don’t. Adaptation takes place. In my experience, those experiences are an essential part of professional behavior.
  3. The budget data for law enforcement and intelligence professionals, when compared to the volume of work that must be performed is not included in the article. One quick example: a major city’s law enforcement group needs twice the number of uniforms presently available to handle existing criminal activity. There is neither budget nor political support to expand the number of officers. Use of new methods is one way to extend the thin membrane of law enforcement over the present work load.
  4. The volume of data available is impossible to capture, manage, and process with traditional methods. Not even the most sophisticated computer systems are able to deliver the type of information that may be needed to address a certain situation. In my experience, more investment and effort are needed to tame and channel the raging floods of data.

In short, paranoia is a useful motivational and creative force. However, paranoia without context can create an impression that certain situations look like a duck but may be a very different animal. Forget trade shows. Forget public announcements about data sets being made available. Remember that context is needed to understand the who, what, why, and how of an action. These nuances are tough to get even when one is working on a project that requires certain types of data. Outside of those projects, context may be impossible to obtain. Without context, I find it difficult to speak with confidence about a specific action or a group of unrelated actions.

I do know what can happen if certain data are ignored. You do too if you do some historical thinking.

Stephen Arnold, December 3, 2009

Oyez, oyex, I wish to report to the Department of Justice that I was not paid by anyone to point out that context is a useful concept when writing about specific actions taken in order to complete a mission.

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