Great Exploitations: Data Mining, Legal Modernization, and the NSA

Data Science Lecture Series


February 5, 2016
1:10pm to 2:30pm
190 Doe Library
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We cannot understand the programs revealed by Edward Snowden and other whistleblowers without understanding a broader set of historical developments before and after 9/11. With the growing spread of computation into everyday transactions from the 1960s into the 1990s, corporations and governments collected exponentially more information about consumers and citizens. To contend with this deluge of data, computer scientists, mathematicians, and business analysts created new fields of computational analysis, colloquially called “data mining,” designed to produce knowledge or intelligence from vast volume. Facing the growth of the Internet and the increasing availability of high-quality cryptography, national security lawyers within the Department of Justice and the National Security Agency (NSA) began developing what was called a “modernization” of surveillance and intelligence law to deal with technological developments. In addition, in the Clinton era, concerns about terrorist attacks on the United States came to focus heavily on the need to defend computer systems and networks. Protecting the “critical infrastructure” of the United States, the argument ran, required new domestic surveillance to find insecurities and opened the door to much greater Department of Defense capability domestically and new NSA responsibilities. Tools for assessing domestic vulnerabilities lent themselves easily to discerning—and exploiting—foreign ones, and traditions of acquiring and exploiting any foreign sources of communication prompted the NSA to develop ever more invasive ways of hacking into computers and networks worldwide. The job of the NSA is just “to exploit” communications networks—to make them available to policymakers; to do this, its lawyers “exploited” the law as well as technology. "Great Exploitations" tells a history of how we came to exploit communications, law, bureaucracy, and the fear of terrorism and how we might choose to do so differently.


Matthew L. Jones

James R. Barker Professor of Contemporary Civilization, Columbia University

Matthew L. Jones is a historian of science and technology and the James R. Barker Professor of Contemporary Civilization at Columbia. He was a Guggenheim Fellow for 2012–2013 and a Mellon New Directions Fellow for 2012–2015. He has just completed Reckoning with Matter: Calculating Machines, Innovation, and Thinking about Thinking from Pascal to Babbage, forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press. His first book, The Good Life in the Scientific Revolution (University of Chicago Press, 2006), focused on the mathematical innovations of Descartes, Pascal, and Leibniz.