Have you met me? Are we acquainted, either in real life or in social media, or even just had a passing exchange at some point via email? If so, congratulations – you are now connected to a 9/11 mastermind, and the NSA probably knows it.
I am not, of course, a 9/11 mastermind, nor have I been personally acquainted with anyone who was. In fact, by the time I learned of this connection, 9/11 had long since happened and Mohamed Atta was long since dead. But I have a friend in Germany who has a friend who was at the same college in Hamburg that Atta attended, and now, by the NSA’s logic, we are all tainted by the association.
Which is complete and utter nonsense, of course. Mere acquaintance (even when not so attenuated) is not a proxy for influence. Even friendship itself is not a proxy for influence. Relationships between people are many and nuanced and the simple knowledge of one person by another (or even a close social or familial tie) in no way connotes endorsement of every, or even any, aspect of one’s life by the other. Unfortunately the NSA doesn’t seem to realize this (or, more likely, doesn’t care).
In mapping the connections of everyone – every American and everyone else – the NSA presumes meaning in the bare connection itself, which is absurd. Decontextualized metadata showing a connection offers no insight as to what sort of relationship it might represent, and as such it’s wrong to consider it a proxy for any particular kind.
It’s also just as wrong to attempt to derive meaning from these connections because it turns out we are all connected. There is a reason we play “Six Degrees of Separation,” because it reveals the miracle of how upwards of seven billion people spread out on a planet surface of nearly 200 million square miles share this nonetheless pretty small world after all.
Obviously some people share in it more constructively than others. There are some who would choose to do violence to it. But not all of us, or even most of us, and in mapping all of our connections so indiscriminately we are all treated with the same suspicion and surveillance as the few actual bad actors. The NSA might argue that such surveillance of our interconnectivity is necessary to “discover and track” these bad actors, but by putting all of our lives under such scrutiny the NSA presumptively treats the innocent as equally guilty by association.