Obama’s Risky Choices: Big Data, Small Answers

Written by David Michaelis

How will Obama handle ISIS? The Black Budget allows for a huge amount of big data, but the spy agencies have trouble processing information. Commentary.

aNewDomain.net — President Obama faces risky choices as ISIS moves fast in Iraq. Yet the spy agencies are not capable of following the movement, even though big data on ISIS is available. The Black Budget clearly states that roughly $50 billion was injected into the intelligence community in 2013. All those funds for the NSA and others exorbitantly increase the amount of big data we have. And it keeps those massive data centers running into eternity, but gets us no closer to any answers.

As the Daily Beast stated on June 16th:

The U.S. military has the capability to conduct air strikes over Iraq within hours. The problem is they don’t know exactly who they are supposed to be targeting.”

So, my question: How exactly do the generals justify their monetary demands for more surveillance?

Too Much Data, Very Little Knowledge

The generals, and the agencies they head, seem to be overwhelmed by the amount of big data. This is not because there is too much of it, but because they don’t know how to tame it. Why were the uprisings in Crimea, and ISIS in Iraq, such surprises? How were they blindsided at Boston? With all that money, they must have had the information. But they had no way process it — and what good is data if you can’t understand it?

Lost in Sea of Big Data

Image credit: WikiMedia Commons

The information lies stagnant in readily expanding pools, as our ability to collect and warehouse it increases. Yet our ability to make sense of and communicate it remains inert, largely without notice. Without human-based information, gleaned from the actual world, and smart analysts at NSA HQ, all the metadata gathered is impotent.

Instead of the idiom “Fog of War” we need to coin the term “Fog of Metadata.”

You cannot police the world if you can’t contextualize the information you receive. U.S. President Barack Obama told the graduating cadets at West Point we are not the policemen of the world:

But U.S. military action cannot be the only — or even primary — component of our leadership in every instance. Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail.”

He is right. He knows that the U.S. should not get involved in a situation that is too large to solve.

Evgeny Morozov from Stanford remarked that metadata is good for simple correlations but not for real causes. Computers speed the process of information handling, but they don’t tell us what the information means, or how to communicate its meaning to decision makers. These skills are not intuitive; they rely largely on analysis and presentation skills that must be learned.

As Stephen Few of Perceptual Edge said, “What we have here is Big Data but Little Information.”

The Case of Hummus: Follow the Food

Morozov says:

The good news — at least to Big Data proponents — is that we don’t need to understand what any of these clicks or videos mean. We just need to establish some relationship between the unknown terrorists of tomorrow and the established terrorists of today. If the terrorists we do know have a penchant for, say, hummus, then we might want to apply extra scrutiny to anyone who’s ever bought it—without ever developing a hypothesis as to why the hummus is so beloved. (In fact, for a brief period of time in 2005 and 2006, the FBI, hoping to find some underground Iranian terrorist cells, did just that: They went through customer data collected by grocery stores in the San Francisco area searching for sales records of Middle Eastern food.) The great temptation of Big Data is that we can stop worrying about comprehension and focus on preventive action instead. Instead of wasting precious public resources on understanding the “why” — i.e. exploring the reasons as to why terrorists become terrorists—one can focus on predicting the “when” so that a timely intervention could be made.”

The temptation and the seduction of big data lies in a deep belief that it has the solutions to any question. But, in truth, it does not. We forget as Kevin Kelly says: “Machines are for answers — humans are for questions.”

For aNewDomain.net, I’m David Michaelis.

Based in Australia, David Michaelis is a world-renowned international journalist and founder of Link Tv. At aNewDomain.net, he covers the global beat, focusing on politics and other international topics of note for our readers in a variety of forums. Email him at DavidMc@aNewDomain.net.