Three thoughts on PRISM

10/06/2013 § 4 Comments

The US government is reading this. So is the UK government, and perhaps our own NZ people. I’m not surprised — this was always the logical conclusion of the legal and technological developments over the last 10 to 15 years.

The leaked slideshow describing the PRISM programme is available at Forbes (and other places). Slide 3 keeps popping up as part of the commentary around the Internet:

PRISM slideshow, slide 3

PRISM slideshow, slide 3

What slide 3 reinforces is the close interaction between companies and governments. I’ve made the point before, but let’s say it again: economic analysis that focuses on only producers and consumers misses a key feature of the modern economy. The government — public agencies of one sort or another — doesn’t just set the rules of the economy, which is a sort of institutional view. These agencies are actively involved in the economy. Introductory microeconomics doesn’t have enough of this.

It’s a bit like the 18th-century debate on the role of God. The Deists used the metaphor of God as a clock-maker, who set the Universe running and then stepped back from it. Other theologies believed that God was more interventionist: He continued to be involved in human affairs. The standard economic view is that the rules get set and then people mostly abide by them; the truth is that there is much more endogeneity in the rule-setting.

The second point is entirely different: this approach to sucking up everything and trying to make sense of it is useless for protecting us from terrorism or any other crime. When PRISM sucks up everything, all it has is data. It doesn’t have information, and it doesn’t have judgement. The work of economic analysis and consulting is turning data into answers. That’s time consuming, expensive, and contentious. I imagine that trying to spot criminal activity in the midst of all that data is like trying to analyse responses from a really poorly designed survey while it’s still being administered. This point was made very well in The New Republic.

A third thought — and this one need more work — is that PRISM is defined not by its success but by its emptiness. That is, the point of PRISM does not lie in its ability to provide information. Instead, it is meant to terrify. It is meant to be a symbol of the power of the US government, which can reach into any tech company and extract its data entrails. It is like the statues of terrible gods at the entrances to Chinese temples: the statues can’t do anything (they are just statues), but they remind you that awesome power resides here and might be used against any transgressors. PRISM, similarly, is not evaluated on the worth of the information it produces, by what it actually does. We cannot do a cost-benefit analysis and determine whether it has an appropriate benefit-cost ratio. Its existence does not depend on its functional value. Instead, it exists because some people want it to exist in order to signify the ability to make it exist.

So, yes, the US government is reading this post. But, because its ‘reading’ is merely the scanning of bytes and warehousing of data, it doesn’t know what the post ‘means’. In the end, though, the point may be the act, not the comprehension.

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§ 4 Responses to Three thoughts on PRISM

  • WH says:

    Leaving aside privacy/legal issues for a moment, I think this issue highlights broader “big data” issues and for economics researchers a little bit of …”so you’ve got all this data on individual payments and preferences, could we have a chat this”.

    • Bill says:

      Absolutely, it does. It’s combination of two skills — statistical skills and communication. Might not be one person but a team. How does one get them started/organised/working together? I would suggest that economists have the inside track, since we (are supposed to) combine data and narrative.

  • Marcie says:

    What is missing from most of the analysis on this topic is the government-corporate partnership and the cost of the so-called “war on terror.” The government itself doesn’t have the horsepower to gather and interpret these data so it spends billions of dollars on contractors like Booz Allen Hamilton and Halliburton. These are the modern day equivalent in the service sector of Boeing, Chrysler, and General Dynamics in the industrial sector. Thousands and thousands of jobs are created with these contracts and provide a constant pull to keep that money flowing. It will be politically and economically unpopular to turn off the tap to these succubi, thus the monies involved will perpetuate the acts.

    • Bill says:

      I hadn’t realised the extent of the outsourcing until now. Amazing how the job of government is being performed by the private sector. My economics training — and the economics I generally see being taught — doesn’t delve enough into this. Public choice, institutional economics, Galbraith, Marx — all grapple with these issues more than standard stuff.

      Interesting, too, how the outsourcing mirrors the economy in moving from manufacturing to services.

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