Reported NSA snooping in Green Zone: Not data mining

Naturally, the reports that National Security Agency workers eavesdropped on phone calls of Americans working in Bagdhad’s Green Zone raise serious of questions about data mining and privacy. When I talk about the Numerati combing through our shopping and work data, this is the type of invasion people often bring up: According to these reports, the NSA officials listened to phone talks about sex and other private matters, and joked about them.

But this is wiretapping, not statistical data mining. In data mining, it’s machines going through patterns of billions of words and phone calls. They may intrude, but don’t get thrills from it. The scary part about data mining for national security, as outlined in a report this week, is that the patterns can produce all sorts of false positives—innocent people who may appear to be acting like potential terrorists.

What we’re hearing about in the Green Zone is closer to what I describe in the book as the “gum-shoe” approach. It starts with a lead, a person with apparent links to a plot, and then follows that person’s data trail: Who he or she talks to, e-mails, etc. It involves data—as information—but not pattern recognition. What is frightening about this NSA report is that apparently all kinds of people working in the Green Zone fit into that “suspicious” category. And if people in the Green Zone can be placed under this surveillance, how about Americans of Arab descent, watchers of Al Jazeera, people who eat at certain types of restaurants? (also posted in