Patterns of Life

I’m not sure about the rest of you, but I have found myself to be a creature of habit. I order the same food at the same places every single time I go and I use the same routes whenever I walk around, whether it’s here at Wheaton College or in my hometown of Salem Massachusetts. Everyone has habits or tendencies that they’ll stick to, which quite often provides comfort to them. Food preferences or ordering habits for example, vary from person to person, but food can always be a comfort. Other habits or hobbies can be collecting buttons or video games, to drawing or taking photographs. The point I’m trying to make here is that habits make up portions of our identity; they help make us unique and find others who have common interests.

However, in the digital age these patterns mean more than finding friends who collect the same things as you do. The habits you have online can be tracked very easily and can determine your fate as a well-meaning citizen. John Cheney Lippold’s book, We Are Data: Algorithms and The Making of Our Digital Selves, explores this digital connection to our technological habits and searches, as well as the interaction between large technology based groups, like Google and the NSA. Both groups collect data and what they do with it is interesting and concerning at the same time. Lippold notes the similarities between the two mission statements of both Google and the NSA. He writes, “Google takes the world’s information and makes it “useful.” The NSA vacuums up the world’s data so as to “gain a decision advantage for the Nation and our allies under all circumstances.” The former uses data for knowledge, order, and advertising. The latter uses data for knowledge, order, and state power.” (Lippold)

Seal_of_the_U.S._National_Security_Agency.svg

The NSA collects our data and uses it to infer whether or not you are a citizen or foreign, when before it was all about whether or not you or your parents were born in the United States. Its collection of data is reliant on our technological habits, especially our phone calls and status updates. What’s interesting is what the NSA does with this information. They use their collection to figure you out as a person, and to provide information to other government agencies. Their compilation of our data can be concerning for some, but if you haven’t done anything wrong then what’s the harm? A simple question surely, but even if you haven’t done anything wrong, your information can still be used against you, whether by the NSA or by Google.

“The NSA makes ‘you,’ and infers much about ‘you,’ according to these tiny, apparently useless fragments of data. A sports game here and your phone’s GPS location there likely mean nothing at all. But examined together, and with an algorithmic eye for patterns, this data might come to mean everything.” – John Cheney Lippold

The world knows just how far the NSA has gone to collect our data thanks to Edward Snowden, who leaked thousands of previously classified documents regarding the U.S. government’s global surveillance to journalists. These documents revealed the nature of the NSA and their way of “collecting the whole haystack” of information. In an interview with NBC’s Brian Williams, Snowden discusses the patterns of life or technological habits that the NSA is hyper fixated on.

“They’d be able to tell something called your pattern of life: when are you doing these kind of activities? When do you wake up? When do you go to sleep? What other phones are around you when you wake up and go to sleep? Are you with someone who’s not your wife? Are you someplace you shouldn’t be?” Edward Snowden, in reference to the data the NSA is after

Snowden also mentions how this collection of data and hyper fixation on our patterns of life can be dangerous if misused. These capabilities to search and collect every piece of technologic data are unregulated and uncontrolled, meaning they can easily be put in the wrong hands. This is eerily similar to one of the themes within the Bourne Trilogy, of which I am in the middle of making a video essay about. The Bourne Ultimatum makes use of NSA type hardware in order to track down a journalist who is planning on publishing reports from a classified and somewhat illegal operation run by Bourne’s old spy handlers. The handlers find and track the journalist to Waterloo Station in London to try to kill him before he leaks the information, however Jason Bourne steps in to save the journalist and his files.

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