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.”