Instead, NSA is most likely fleshing out the social cir­cles of sus­pects iden­ti­fied by other means. “If you have the data on everyone, then when you have reason to believe that Mr. X is someone of interest, you can go back and look at his behav­iors,” says David Lazer, a polit­ical sci­en­tist at North­eastern Uni­ver­sity in Boston.

NSA is hardly the only orga­ni­za­tion tracing social net­works. Such work is done by the com­pa­nies that gen­erate the data, researchers say, and some, such as Twitter, sell their data. Valdis Krebs, a net­work sci­en­tist and the founder of Orgnet LLC in Cleve­land, Ohio, says he did work for a phone com­pany that wor­ried its most highly con­nected sub­scribers might leave and take their con­tacts with them. The com­pany hired Krebs to help iden­tify those key cus­tomers so that they might receive perks—a task not dis­sim­ilar to unmasking the leaders of ter­rorist net­works. “It’s the same mod­eling, but where one group is looking for the nodes to get rid of, the other is looking for the ones to butter up,” Krebs says.

Some sci­en­tists say that con­cerns over the NSA pro­gram are overblown. “Why do people get upset if the gov­ern­ment is han­dling the data but not if a com­pany is han­dling the data?” says Alessandro Vespig­nani, a physi­cist at North­eastern who, with sup­port from the National Insti­tutes of Health, has helped pre­dict the spread of influenza. Uzzi says the gov­ern­ment has its hands full hunting ter­ror­ists. “With all that going on, will they come after you and me?” he says. “It just doesn’t make any sense.”

But some see darker poten­tial­i­ties. Krebs that says his grand­par­ents and par­ents lived in Latvia and suf­fered through the brutal repres­sion of the Nazi and Soviet regimes. A modern-​​day Hitler or Stalin could use net­work analysis to target polit­ical oppo­nents, he says. “People like that get this tech­nology and it’s over,” he says. “This is the best way to find you and elim­i­nate you.” Lazer shares that con­cern. “It’s not the gov­ern­ment now, it’s the gov­ern­ment in 20 years or 40 years that one has to worry about,” he says.

Others say that polit­i­cally, the U.S. gov­ern­ment is prac­ti­cally oblig­ated to employ such tech­niques. If NSA didn’t use them and another major ter­rorist attack occurred, then people would com­plain that the gov­ern­ment hadn’t done all it could to pre­vent the attack, Vespig­nani says: “We have the tools and we have the infor­ma­tion. We have to use them. It’s as simple as that.”

Read the article at Science Magazine →