Matthew L. Jones | Great Exploitations: Data Mining, Technological Determinism and the NSA

We cannot understand the programs revealed by Edward Snowden and other whistleblowers without understanding a broader set of historical development before and after 9/11. First, with the growing spread of computation into everyday transactions from the 1960s into the 1990s, corporations and governments collected exponentially more information about consumers and citizens. To contend with this deluge of data, computer scientists, mathematicians, and business analysts created new fields of computational analysis, colloquially called “data mining,” designed to produce knowledge or intelligence from vast volume. Second, conservative legal scholars, government officers, and judges had long doubted the constitutionality of legal restrictions that Congress had placed on intelligence work, foreign and domestic, in the late 1970s. Facing the growth of the Internet and the increasing availability of high quality cryptography, national security lawyers within the Department of Justice and the National Security Agency began developing what was called a “modernization” of surveillance and intelligence law to deal with technological developments. Third, in the Clinton era, concerns about terrorist attacks on the United States came to focus heavily on the need to defend computer systems and networks. The asymmetrical nature of the terrorist threat had long challenged the traditional division of defense of the homeland versus offence abroad: attacks honored no territorial boundaries, and, neither, it increasingly came to seem, should defense against them. Protecting the “critical infrastructure” of the United States, the argument ran, required new domestic surveillance to find insecurities, and opened the door to much greater Department of Defense capability domestically and new NSA responsibilities. Tools for assessing domestic vulnerabilities lent themselves easily to discerning—and exploiting—foreign ones. And traditions of acquiring and exploiting any foreign sources of communication prompted the NSA to develop ever more invasive ways of hacking into computers and networks worldwide. In the immediate wake of 9/11, the Bush administration braided these developments, to create a massive global surveillance regime. The administration sought to make it appear at once technologically determined and essential for security in the global war of terror. The job of the NSA was “to exploit” communications networks—to make them available to policymakers; to do this, its lawyers “exploited” the law as well as technology. Great Exploitations tells a history of how we came to exploit communications, law, bureaucracy, and the fear of terrorism, and how we might choose to do so differently.


Matthew JonesMatthew L.  Jones
James R. Barker Professor of Contemporary Civilization
Columbia University

Tuesday, March 29, 2016
12:00 PM – 1:00 PM
UC Davis School of Law, King Hall Rm 1301

Matthew L. Jones is James R. Barker Professor of Contemporary Civilization at Columbia University. He specializes in the history of science and technology, focused on early modern Europe and on recent information technologies. He chairs the Committee on the Core and Contemporary Civilization. A Guggenheim Fellow for 2012-13 and a Mellon New Directions fellow for 2012-15, he is researching Data Mining: The Critique of Artificial Reason, 1963-2005, a historical and ethnographic account of “big data,” its relation to statistics and machine learning, and its growth as a fundamental new form of technical expertise in business and scientific research. Based on research funded by the National Science Foundation, he is finishing a philosophical, technical and labor history of calculating machines from Pascal to Babbage. His publications include: “Improvement for Profit: Calculating Machines and the Prehistory of Intellectual Property,” in Nature Engaged: Science in Practice from the Renaissance to the Present (Mario Biagioli and Jessica Riskin, eds., Palgrave-MacMillan, 2012); The Good Life in the Scientific Revolution (University of Chicago Press, 2006); and “Descartes’s Geometry as Spiritual Exercise” in Critical Inquiry 28 (2001).