Kieran Healy is a sociologist at Duke University. He just published a satirical blog post on using social network analysis to track down Boston radicals. Only it was not radicals from the 21st century Boston but rather those 1772 Boston.
I have been asked by my superiors to give a brief demonstration of the surprising effectiveness of even the simplest techniques of the new-fangled Social Networke Analysis in the pursuit of those who would seek to undermine the liberty enjoyed by His Majesty’s subjects. This is in connection with the discussion of the role of “metadata” in certain recent events and the assurances of various respectable parties that the government was merely “sifting through this so-called metadata” and that the “information acquired does not include the content of any communications”. I will show how we can use this “metadata” to find key persons involved in terrorist groups operating within the Colonies at the present time. I shall also endeavour to show how these methods work in what might be called a relational manner.
The analysis in this report is based on information gathered by our field agent Mr David Hackett Fischer and published in an Appendix to his lengthy report to the government. As you may be aware, Mr Fischer is an expert and respected field Agent with a broad and deep knowledge of the colonies. I, on the other hand, have made my way from Ireland with just a little quantitative training—I placed several hundred rungs below the Senior Wrangler during my time at Cambridge—and I am presently employed as a junior analytical scribe at ye olde National Security Administration. Sorry, I mean the Royal Security Administration. And I should emphasize again that I know nothing of current affairs in the colonies. However, our current Eighteenth Century beta of PRISM has been used to collect and analyze information on more than two hundred and sixty persons (of varying degrees of suspicion) belonging variously to seven different organizations in the Boston area.
Rest assured that we only collected metadata on these people, and no actual conversations were recorded or meetings transcribed. All I know is whether someone was a member of an organization or not. Surely this is but a small encroachment on the freedom of the Crown’s subjects. I have been asked, on the basis of this poor information, to present some names for our field agents in the Colonies to work with. It seems an unlikely task.
The post shows the power of social network analysis to shift through metadata to find the key players in an organization, their linkages, and centers of influence. Just as importantly the post will give you an idea of how it works. It is hard to criticize something if you don’t know how it works.
So when you hear all the disclaimers from President Obama or Rep. Mike Rodgers (R-MI) or Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) that they didn’t listen to anyone’s phone conversations or read Grandma’s forwarded emails, it doesn’t matter. The metadata is all they need to convict anyone of us in abstentia of “crimes against the state” – or what they would have you believe are crimes.
On an off-topic, side note, I’ve always pondered the use of social network analysis to find the linkages amongst the gun prohibitionists. It certainly would be interesting.
UPDATE: This post by DaddyBear is a must read about the NSA revelations. His military time was spent in signals intelligence working alongside the NSA. Moreover, the current head of the NSA, Gen. Keith Alexander, was his battalion commander when he was in Germany.