When it comes to tracking down someone’s movements and contacts through their internet and phone records, America’s national security agencies do a pretty damn good job of it. But what are the implications of some other, outside entity getting their hands on the kind of Big Data that we now know the NSA is routinely gathering on foreign, and its own, citizens?
Doomsday merchants over at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, are apparently quite concerned at this prospect. They’re worried that enemies of America could use data gathered from disparate sources like phone records, Netflix queues, Twitter feeds and Facebook posts to carry out damaging cyber attacks against the country. So worried in fact, that they’ve recently begun hiring researchers to look at the scale of damage that such attacks might cause.
DARPA says that it wants to hire researchers whose job description will be to “investigate the national security threat posed by public data available either for purchase or through open sources,” according to a recent posting. What DARPA actually wants to know is whether or not it might be possible for foreign intelligence agencies to cause “nation-state type effects,” simply by mining publicly available information that’s culled from social media and websites, or from brokers hawking data sets on millions of American citizens. According to the posting, DARPA is seriously concerned that such data could be used to reveal military secrets, discover the identity of secret agents, give hackers an easy route into the systems of US Banks, or create maps of the country’s most secretive and sensitive facilities.
US readers might think this is all well and good – it pays to stay one step ahead of the game. But isn’t it rather ironic that DARPA is apparently so concerned whilst at the same time, various government officials insist that US citizens have no reason to fear that the NSA might be pouring over their personal emails and phone records?
Apparently, DARPA’s concerns are nothing new; it’s been fearful for some time now about the realms of data that are so easily accessible around the web. These fears date back to 2009, when Netflix sponsored a competition among developers to come up with ways to improve its movie recommendation algorithm, only for things to backfire when two researchers discovered how to identify the company’s customers using what was supposed to be ‘anonymous’ data. The researchers did so by comparing reviews of netflix movies with reviews posted onto the Internet Movie Database, and were astonishingly accurate. Their actions reportedly caused one lesbian customer of Netflix to sue the company for violating her privacy, claiming that its actions led to her sexuality being made public.
DARPA’s job posting uses the Netflix incident as just one example of why the US needs to be more cautious over Big Data. A big part of the research will be about identifying other databases, and also and research tools out which could potentially be dangerous. Interestingly enough, it cites Amazon’s cloud service as something which could “provide a determined adversary with the tools necessary to inflict nation-state level damage” – the very same service that’s apparently building a $600 million private cloud for the CIA, raising the interesting prospect of a tool built to serve the needs of America’s spies being used against them.
Researchers who think they’re a bit handy when it comes to Big Data and would like to help DARPA out, have until August 26 to submit proposals.