Monday, December 17, 2012

Obama: It's Time To Use Big Data To Protect Our Children.

President Obama interrupted the awesome 49ers-Patriots game last night for a speech.  I didn't have time to go over it until this morning, when I started putting the pieces together to figure out what the heck he was talking about.  Plus, I needed to read it, rather than hear it, to process the substance.  

The criticism I heard this morning was that the word "gun" was never mentioned in the speech.  How can the President be talking about protecting children and not mention gun control?  After thinking about it, I don't think it was an accident.  While control of guns may be his goal, I think he's planning on getting there through something on an entirely different level from mere background checks. 

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"Government seeks to shut down NSA wiretapping lawsuit"
Joe Mullin, Ars Technica, Dec. 14, 2012
available at http://tinyurl.com/cppypud
President Obama has amazing tools at his disposal to protect America from threats around the world.  He gets daily reports on what terrorists around the world are up to, with fairly accurate predictions concerning what they'll do next.  He can do so because of the power of the NSA's computers, and because of the careful use of statistics.

Anyone who wants to get really specific on the cutting edge of the technology can read about the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) litigation over Room 641A at AT&T's building at 611 Folsom Street, San Francisco. While the lawsuit talks about a lot of computer hardware, like the Narus STA 6400, what the program is really about is the NSA collecting essentially everyone's electronic communications, and analyzing them probabilistically, to anticipate and prevent attacks. 

I strongly suspect those tools are not used by domestic law enforcement, and as near as I can be certain about anything, I believe those tools are never made available to mental health professionals and social workers. 


However, these kinds of tools are no longer just available to the Federal Government. The last ten years have seen these tools proliferate throughout American industry and academia. Charles Duhigg of the New York Times wrote a superb article on the subject this past February, detailing specifically how Target, for example, uses such information -- entirely legally -- to market to pregnant mothers in their first trimester:
"About a year after Pole created his pregnancy-prediction model, a man walked into a Target outside Minneapolis and demanded to see the manager. He was clutching coupons that had been sent to his daughter, and he was angry, according to an employee who participated in the conversation."


“'My daughter got this in the mail!' he said. 'She’s still in high school, and you’re sending her coupons for baby clothes and cribs? Are you trying to encourage her to get pregnant?'”
"The manager didn’t have any idea what the man was talking about. He looked at the mailer. Sure enough, it was addressed to the man’s daughter and contained advertisements for maternity clothing, nursery furniture and pictures of smiling infants. The manager apologized and then called a few days later to apologize again."
"On the phone, though, the father was somewhat abashed. 'I had a talk with my daughter,' he said. 'It turns out there’s been some activities in my house I haven’t been completely aware of. She’s due in August. I owe you an apology.'"
Corporate America knows some of our deepest secrets, without us explicitly telling anyone. The importance of that can easily be overlooked -- the computer system at your local Target has access to incredibly personal information about you that we would never have dreamed of providing to your average social worker or school psychologist.

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To understand the President's speech, though, I think you have to understand how difficult it was to explain the situation in Newtown, Conn. to my daughter.

When she asked me why the flags were at half-staff on Saturday, I started by explaining to her that, just like her stomach might feel bad, or her leg hurt, sometimes our heads get sick, too.

She wanted to know why the person wouldn't just go to the doctor if that happened.

I told her that sometimes part of the sickness is that the person thinks they can't ask for help. And that we all depend on one another to ask each other for help when we can't handle something, to keep us all safe.

I then told her that we are all sad because someone got sick like that on Friday.  And that the person decided that the only way they could get better was by hurting themselves, and a whole lot of other people, people who are just like her Mom, her Dad, and her, in a small town just like ours. And that we lowered the flags because we are all so sad.

It was still on my mind that evening, when I sat down with a good friend who's in education.  We were talking about when we can take action based on information we receive -- I explained the oath lawyers take in California, and he talked to me about what it means to be a mandated reporter.  We both reflected on how our options are limited if someone won't ask for (let alone accept) help.

But of course, with modern technology, we don't have to sit around waiting for someone to ask for help.  Your local Target has all the information needed to predict when you're pregnant, and the same types of databases probably light off like a Christmas tree when someone's thinking about taking the kind of action Adam Lanza took.  I suspect it's routinely possible to use the same computer systems to alert local school and social workers when something like Newtown's about to happen -- perhaps far earlier than any of us suspect.

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If you think of government using such databases in as ominous terms as Room 641A is described in the EFF litigation, the whole situation probably freaks you out. It's not hard to see why.

Think for a moment -- if the government can just go buy the same information about you as your local Target can -- about who's pregnant -- imagine the use of such information in, oh, say, the abortion context.  Now, there's no invasion of a woman's right to private communications with her doctor -- the government can know a woman's thinking about getting an abortion long before the event occurs, without invading that relationship at all.

Legislators on both sides of the aisle are aware of how politically explosive that technology's use by government could prove. The consequences of tearing down the anonymity veil are, at the very least, unpredictable.  No-one has wanted to walk down that road.

Until now.
"[E]very parent knows there is nothing we will not do to shield our children from harm."

...
"This is our first task -- caring for our children. It’s our first job. If we don’t get that right, we don’t get anything right. That’s how, as a society, we will be judged."
"And by that measure, can we truly say, as a nation, that we are meeting our obligations? Can we honestly say that we’re doing enough to keep our children -- all of them -- safe from harm? Can we claim, as a nation, that we’re all together there, letting them know that they are loved, and teaching them to love in return? Can we say that we’re truly doing enough to give all the children of this country the chance they deserve to live out their lives in happiness and with purpose?"

"I’ve been reflecting on this the last few days, and if we’re honest with ourselves, the answer is no. We’re not doing enough. And we will have to change."

"Since I’ve been President, this is the fourth time we have come together to comfort a grieving community torn apart by a mass shooting. The fourth time we’ve hugged survivors. The fourth time we’ve consoled the families of victims. And in between, there have been an endless series of deadly shootings across the country, almost daily reports of victims, many of them children, in small towns and big cities all across America -- victims whose -- much of the time, their only fault was being in the wrong place at the wrong time."
"We can’t tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change. We will be told that the causes of such violence are complex, and that is true. No single law -- no set of laws can eliminate evil from the world, or prevent every senseless act of violence in our society."

"But that can’t be an excuse for inaction. Surely, we can do better than this. If there is even one step we can take to save another child, or another parent, or another town, from the grief that has visited Tucson, and Aurora, and Oak Creek, and Newtown, and communities from Columbine to Blacksburg before that -- then surely we have an obligation to try."
"In the coming weeks, I will use whatever power this office holds to engage my fellow citizens -- from law enforcement to mental health professionals to parents and educators -- in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this. Because what choice do we have? We can’t accept events like this as routine. Are we really prepared to say that we’re powerless in the face of such carnage, that the politics are too hard? Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?"
The President knows we are not powerless -- we are anything but.  He knows the computer system at the Target located at 7 Stony Hill Road, Bethel, Connecticut, 8.5 miles from Sandy Hook Elementary, had a better idea of what was about to happen than any social worker or educator in the State of Connecticut. And he's had enough of tying the government's hands. 

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This could make anyone afraid -- how will such information be used?  Is this Orwell's 1984? The concern must be about how such information will be used, and our fear is that it will be misused.  

I submit to you, though, that we as Americans can create a solution to this problem -- for managing such incredibly difficult problems is what we do.  

I was struck this morning, after watching Disney's Prep & Landing over the weekend (if you haven't seen it, you should, it's hilarious) about how our artists reimagine Santa Claus in the 21st Century.  

Rather than magic, Santa's operation is run by a charming, elven-staffed combination of NASA, the CIA, FedEx, and SOCOM, all rolled into one. And why?  For the kids, of course. These elves coming down the chimney with night vision goggles and sparkle ornaments are hardly fear inducing -- after all, we lay out cookies and milk for them, and carrots for the reindeer. 

So that brings this back to the subject matter of this post. What's behind the door to Room 641A? It's the real world's version of the technology and organization from Prep & Landing. The power of that technology may be misused.  But we as Americans specialize in organizing ourselves to wield that kind of power.  When we think of the power of Santa, our artists imagine the bureaucracy it would take to get something like that done the right way -- because that's what we as Americans happen to be pretty good at. If there isn't a set of agencies, experts, lawyers and officials designed to oversee the application of this technology, of this information, and the use of the probabilities it calculates, there soon will be.  And it will probably work pretty darn well.

It's not that Adam Lanza couldn't get help from anyone. It is that we as a nation refused to examine the data. America will, no doubt, be a much different place when your town advertises, via postcard, about free counseling clinics, and the postcard is sent to only one home. Our President's point, however, is that our freedom does not depend on our government ignoring the very information driving the core of American business.  Innocent lives depend upon us paying attention, and protecting the vulnerable must be our starting point, no matter how serious the consequences will be politically. 

The President, not being specific?  Hardly.

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