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Data Mining and Data Minding

Data Minding


1. Your thirteen-year-old child seems different, is hanging around with kids you don?t like. She keeps a diary marked PRIVATE! DO NOT OPEN. She?s away at school. You wonder what she is thinking. You worry about her. What?s on her mind? Do you open it?

2. You are invited to your boss?s house for dinner. She and her husband give you drinks, then you, your partner, and the other guests all sit down for dinner. Later, when you need to go to the toilet, one of their children is already using the guest bathroom, so they point you towards their bedroom and tell you to use the en suite bathroom. You go in and notice a collection of prescription medicines arrayed on a shelf. Do you read the labels?

3. Same scenario, but everything is neat and tidy in the bathroom; nothing personal is visible. As you wash your hands you see the medicine cabinet in front of you. You are tempted to open it and see what medicines your bosses take, what personal stuff they keep there. Do you give in to temptation?

4. You are over at your friend?s house one afternoon, talking in the study, and he says he has to go out to pick up his child, and encourages you to stay behind and relax for fifteen minutes. You stay, and looking for something to read, you see his tax return lying on his desk.  Do you give in to temptation?

5. You are a twenty-two year-old student who asked a professor for a letter of recommendation. When you come around to pick up the sealed envelope as instructed, no one is in the office and the letter is lying unsealed on his desk. No one is around. What do you do?

6. Your significant other of several years has been somewhat distant for a few months. She goes to bed early, gets up in the middle of the night sometimes and reads her emails.  One evening she checks her laptop one more time and then heads off to sleep. Fifteen minutes later you notice she has forgotten to log out of her email. With no trouble at all you can read her messages. Do you give in to suspicion and pry into what doesn?t belong to you?

7. Same scenario, but she uses gmail and never leaves her laptop unlocked. You think you have a good guess at her password. Would you try to log in to her account and see if it works?


Once, years ago, I worked for a large company. One afternoon someone outside the company send me the following joke:

Breaking News! The New York City School Board has declared Jewish English – now dubbed Hebonics – as an official second language. Backers of the move say the city’s School District is the first in the country to recognize Hebonics as a valid language with its own grammar and syntax, and is a superb linguistic vehicle for expressing sarcasm. To indicate sarcasm and mockery, one repeats a word with a “sh” or “shm” added the beginning, as in “Mountains, Shmountains, let?s go to Florida.”

I grinned at what I regarded as a Jewish joke. I did recognize its reference to Ebonics, the formal term at that time for what is called African-American Vernacular English, but I wasn?t aware of a recent controversy about the Oakland California School Board?s decision to legitimize it as a teaching language. A friend passing my office asked what I was grinning at, and I said ?I?ll forward it to you.? A few weeks later I received a call from someone high up in the company I worked for, who warned me somewhat sympathetically that I should expect a formal reprimand. Soon after I (and many other people) received a letter from Legal containing a copy of the email I had forwarded to my friend, extracted from the hidden software structure of his mailbox on the central server, cautioning me (but not him, fair enough) against using company email for personal purposes. Someone had trawled through mailboxes to see who had sent what was perhaps not unfairly regarded as an offensive parody that could have legal consequences for the firm. Since then I understood that my email at a corporation wasn?t private. Governments are more and more like corporations too.


Data that doesn?t belong to you is ubiquitous. Everyone is curious, some more, some less, in other peoples? private lives, in the conflicts between their thoughts and words and deeds,  in what others think, what they do behind the closed doors of their office, their house and their mind. It?s the ultimate Oedipal temptation.


In the good old days, scientists observed limited amounts of data, formulated hypotheses and theories, decided what experiments to do, collected the necessary data,  examined it and compared it with hypotheses.

Data mining is modern statistical science. First they collect all kinds of data. They make no hypotheses, except that something interesting will be found.  Then they look for patterns.


I was only a few hundred yards away from the World Trade Center when the planes struck. I walked home six miles and it took me half a year to begin to get over the sense that there was a perpetually hovering catastrophe. God knows what it must be like to live in many parts of the world where people live under the threat of violence all the time.

So, I understand why one might do almost anything to prevent a repetition, and why people and politicians in the United States, who were fortunate to have never been attacked on their own territory before,  have been largely unperturbed by the disclosures that the NSA, in collusion with corporations, have been tracking every phone call, instant message and email. 

But there are over one million people with Security Clearances in the United States, and apparently several hundred thousand with Top Secret clearance. Most of them are human. How many of them or the people that command them have never been tempted to looked in other peoples? bathroom cabinets? When data is there, collected at great expense, it demands to be used.

The older I get the more I want what Isaiah Berlin called negative liberty, freedom from interference. I don?t want to be controlled. I don?t want to be watched. I understand the  value of the vote, especially when you don?t have it, but I might be willing to give it up in exchange for the right to not be interfered with. There?s something increasingly attractive about anarchy (naive, I know), in the precise sense of no government rather than in the sense of anarchy?s assumed corollary, wild disorder.

The NSA lives to snoop; their metaphysics isn?t physics, but their metadata is data.. They have reasons but reasons aren?t beyond question. Their actions are thesis. Snowden and Greenwald don?t have to be beyond question either; they are inevitable antithesis.  I have no idea what the synthesis will or should be. From Wikipedia: All things contain within themselves internal dialectical contradictions, which are the primary cause of motion, change, and development in the world. Enjoy the show.





Published in Opinion