The New York Times reports on new moves by the federal government conceding surveillance of Americans:
More than 60 years ago, in his “Foundation” series, the science fiction novelist Isaac Asimov invented a new science — psychohistory — that combined mathematics and psychology to predict the future.
Now social scientists are trying to mine the vast resources of the Internet — Web searches and Twitter messages, Facebook and blog posts, the digital location trails generated by billions of cellphones — to do the same thing.
The most optimistic researchers believe that these storehouses of “big data” will for the first time reveal sociological laws of human behavior — enabling them to predict political crises, revolutions and other forms of social and economic instability, just as physicists and chemists can predict natural phenomena. […]
The government is showing interest in the idea. This summer a little-known intelligence agency began seeking ideas from academic social scientists and corporations for ways to automatically scan the Internet in 21 Latin American countries for “big data,” according to a research proposal being circulated by the agency. The three-year experiment, to begin in April, is being financed by the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, or Iarpa (pronounced eye-AR-puh), part of the office of the director of national intelligence.
The automated data collection system is to focus on patterns of communication, consumption and movement of populations. It will use publicly accessible data, including Web search queries, blog entries, Internet traffic flow, financial market indicators, traffic webcams and changes in Wikipedia entries.
It is intended to be an entirely automated system, a “data eye in the sky” without human intervention, according to the program proposal. […]
Some social scientists and advocates of privacy rights are deeply skeptical of the project, saying it evokes queasy memories of Total Information Awareness, a post-9/11 Pentagon program that proposed hunting for potential attackers by identifying patterns in vast collections of public and private data: telephone calling records, e-mail, travel data, visa and passport information, and credit card transactions. […]
But advocates of privacy rights worry that public data and the related techniques developed in the new Iarpa project will be adapted for clandestine “total information” operations. […]
Still, the ease of acquiring and manipulating huge data sets charting Internet behavior causes many researchers to warn that the data mining technologies may be quickly outrunning the ability of scientists to think through questions of privacy and ethics.