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Want to know the truth about digital spying? Follow the money

Digital dollar Sign

There’s a saying in journalism, that if you want to get to the truth of a story, “follow the money.”

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The flow of money says much more about the truth of any action in this world than anything else. Snooping on emails, phone calls, Facebook friend networks, whatever else, pales in comparison to the intelligence gained in knowing the money trail.

Money transforms intent into action.

Brute-force spying

The NSA and its foreign counterparts, are collecting vast databases filled with personal data from wherever they can harvest it, which is essentially from the Internet traffic that crosses between the world’s servers. Their goal is to identify terrorist and criminal groups intending to harm their citizens.

They face a data mining nightmare. They need to identify potentially nefarious patterns of connections between individuals and predict their intent to do harm. Big business has trouble enough predicting a person’s intent to buy a washing machine — imagine the task that spy agencies face.

Fortunately for them, the same Moore’s Law that provides us with ever cheaper and better smart phones and computers, delivers digital systems that are cheaper and more powerful on an exponential scale. But a brute force approach to finding the bent needles in the haystack cannot hope to be as efficient as focusing on signals of intent.

“Put your money where your mouth is,” and “Money makes the world go around,” are popular sayings because they are true observations about money and action.

If it’s possible for the spy agencies to collect the masses of personal data that we know they collect, why wouldn’t it be possible for them to hack into global financial networks, and individual banks?

Silicon Valley’s war on cash…

Cash is anonymous but it’s difficult to use without attracting attention. And the future of cash is under pressure from numerous Silicon Valley startups promoting “frictionless” financial transactions of all sorts. What’s good for commerce is good for spies because anything digital leaves a trail.

Bitcoin is a digital technology that offers the anonymity of cash but it might not be quite as secure as it’s portrayed. It could act as a signal to flag suspicious activities.

It’s the same as people using one-time “burner” cell phones to mask their activities – calls made between phone numbers with no known users are a bright beacon amid an ocean of known numbers.

And what do we know about the origin of Bitcoin? Incredibly, very little. Its origin is as anonymous as the anonymity it promises.

It appeared out of nowhere in 2008 from a “Satoshi Nakamoto,” a pseudonym that’s never been traced to any known person or group, which is as you’d expect from the developer of an untraceable digital currency.

What we do know about Bitcoin is that it’s an extremely sophisticated mathematical construct based on prime numbers. Prime numbers are essential to digital security, our most advanced encryption technologies wouldn’t be possible without them.

What do we know about the NSA? It employs more mathematicians than Wall Street, and it knows more about encryption than any other organization on the planet.

Is Bitcoin an NSA construct designed to help focus its surveillance systems? Whatever its origin it does a great job in flagging activities that want to be hidden.

Signals intelligence

What’s clear is that “follow the money” has to be in the playbook of every spy agency. And it has to be far more detailed than the current systems monitoring tax evasion and money laundering. It’s by far the quickest way to pinpoint the activities of suspicious networks of people and organizations.

Crunching through the Mother of Big Data being collected daily, to surface patterns of concern in phone calls and emails, is not a feasible strategy.

Even with the prodigious computing resources that the NSA possesses, data mining on such a scale is a poor way to generate actionable intelligence.

This is backed up by Matthew Aid, an intelligence historian and author of The Secret Sentry: The Untold History of the National Security Agency, who told The Guardian: “The intelligence people I’ve spoken are warning of data crunch – a polite way of saying they’re drowning.”

If you can overlay networks of financial connections, you can disregard the 99.99999999999999999% of the useless data that’s masking what needs to be monitored.

People, especially in the US, will likely be far more upset about security agencies spying on their money than on their emails or phone records. People will happily talk about their healthcare with others but are extremely guarded about their finances.

No one has yet come forward to whistleblow spy agencies snooping on personal financial information but there’s really no need. Follow the dots… follow the money is where you’ll always find the truth of any story.


This article by Tom Foremski originally appeared on Silicon Valley Watcher, a Burn Media publishing partner. Image: World Economic Forum (via Wikimedia Commons).

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