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Fareed Zakaria “But, first, here’s my take. “One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly and with a willingness to accept the penalty.” That was Martin Luther King Jr.’s definition of civil disobedience. It does not appear to be Edward Snowden’s.

He has tried by every method possible to escape any judgment or punishment for his actions. Snowden’s been compared to Daniel Ellsberg, the man who leaked the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times.

But Ellsberg did not hop on a plane to Hong Kong or Moscow once he had unloaded his cache of documents. He stood trial and faced the possibility of more than 100 years in prison before the court dismissed the case against him because of the prosecution’s mistakes and abuses of justice.

Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru spent years in prison in India for defying colonial British colonial rule in their native land. So, while Snowden is no hero, his revelations have focused attention on a brave new world of total information.

We are living with the consequences of two powerful, interrelated trends these days. The first is digital life. Your life today has a digital signature. Where you eat, shop and travel; whom you call, e- mail and text; every website, cafe and museum you have ever visited is all stored in the great digital cloud. And you can’t delete anything, ever.

The second is Big Data. Americans were probably most shocked by the revelation that the U.S. government is collecting massive quantities of their digital signatures, billions of phone calls and e- mails and Internet searches. The feds aren’t monitoring every last one, but they could easily and that is the essence of the age of Big Data.

In their excellent book, “Big Data”, Viktor Mayer-Schoenberger and Kenneth Cukier write about the police in Richmond, Virginia. They track criminal incidents against a variety of events: corporate paydays, sports events, concerts, gun shows and dozens of other possible triggers.

The computer, then, identifies patterns. For example, two weeks after a gun show there is always a jump in violent crime. Now, multiply this example by thousands and you understand what the NSA computers are doing.

They don’t use samples anymore, but rather the entire data set. And they don’t try to construct algorithms or logic trees to predict an event they just look through the data for correlations.

As Mayer-Schoenberger and Cukier point out, if the computers can make predictions based on data analysis, should we prevent bad actions by arresting people before they act? Remember the movie “Minority Report?”

But it’s not just fiction. The NSA program Prism aims to identify suspicious patterns to allow the government to prevent terrorism, that is to act before an attack takes place.

A research project at the Department of Homeland Security that tried to predict terrorist behavior based on people’s vital signs, physiological patterns, was 70 percent accurate, according to the authors.

As far as we know, the U.S. government has broken no laws with all of this surveillance. It has followed all established procedures. Congress approved this program, though it did so in secret, writing laws that aren’t public.

Shouldn’t we know more about the actual checks and balances for this kind of surveillance?

The larger question Big Data raises though is this, should any government be permitted to use computer analysis, even if highly accurate, to observe, inform, quarantine or even arrest people simply because they are likely to do something bad?

That seems like a scenario from a horrifying sci-fi thriller. Yet here we are, very close to a real-world version.”



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