John Oliver interviews NSA’s Keith Alexander

John Oliver’s first interview on his new show: the head of the NSA. Oliver is already brilliant, just as he was when he guest-hosted The Daily Show last summer. This video is well worth your time.

I really almost choked from laughing when Oliver went off about the deeply misguided “needle in the haystack” metaphor.

As Amy Zalman has argued, the NSA’s central flaw — from the standpoint of stopping terrorism effectively — is that it believes too strongly in the need to amass more haystacks to find more needles, rather than using applying context and logic to narrow the search:

The underlying belief in the “power of big data” inverts reality. It isn’t the data that are powerful. It’s the people whose insightful grasp of the context of a particular phenomenon who are powerful.

Right after the NSA issue broke, former CIA director Leon Panetta’s chief of staff, Leon Bash, remarked that, “If you’re looking for a needle in the haystack, you need a haystack.”

Not so. Actually, what you need is an accurate narrative, or theory, about the needle and how to characterize it.

Moreover, its characteristics must leave digital indicators, if you are planning to search in a digital haystack.

There must be enough examples of needles in the world for researchers to be certain that they can distinguish a needle from a stalk of dried grass.

Without a precise sense of how to recognize a needle, all you will get are a lot of false positives.

Any process for selecting particular data from a larger set represents a story about the world outside the data.

Bill Humphrey

About Bill Humphrey

Bill Humphrey is the primary host of WVUD's Arsenal For Democracy talk radio show and a local elected official.
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