There's A Thin Line Between Tracking Terrorists And Tracking Consumers

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Ellis Hamburger, Business Insider

Algorithms used to target terrorists are the same ones used to target consumers.

Granted, one set is targeted for drone strikes (and now drug arrests) while the other for t-shirts, nonetheless, the similarities are striking.

As we recently reported, Unit 8200 is  Israel's tech intel unit of arguably the best military intelligence gathering apparatus in the world.

Matthew Kalman of The Guardian  shows how former 8200 alumni use the same  complex computer algorithms that track potential enemy communications to also help create marketing/advertising software for companies that want to, for example, match "clothes and accessories to suit your taste."

So private companies track user metadata — location, search history, browsing history, etc — on the web in order to market products. This is why if you search "photography" several times, your Facebook page will feature advertisements for photography products.

Consequently, the NSA  tracks metadata in just the same way , for much the same reasons.

A lot can be told about a person based on metadata alone, whether it's from web browsing or from telephone communications (really from any communications).

James Ball of the Guardian cited an appellate court's opinion when it came to just collection of location metadata from phone transmissions:

A person who knows all of another's travels can deduce whether he is a weekly churchgoer, a heavy drinker, a regular at the gym, an unfaithful husband, an outpatient receiving medical treatment, an associate of particular individuals or political groups," it read, "and not just one such fact about a person, but all such facts.

That's just telephone data, the government also collects metadata from browsing on the web. And, no different from private companies, a clear picture of a person's likes, dislikes, personal habits, even patterns of movement, begins to emerge even if they don't necessarily know that person's identity.

The valuable nature of said information is not missed on intelligence agents and marketing agents alike.

From The Guardian:

"A lot of the practices and the technology that we used in the army are used today at Stylit to address the problems we are aiming to solve in fashion," said Yaniv Nissim, a former 8200 programmer who designed the company's algorithm by combining the wisdom of former army tech geeks with fashion industry stylists.  "The technology is mainly machine-learning technology. It's how to take huge amounts of information and from that to understand users' behavior."

Kalman himself sums it up best, writing, " most fans of Stylit, a website where a virtual personal stylist matches clothes and accessories to suit your taste, are unaware that it uses technology adapted from algorithms originally developed to track and prevent suicide bombings."



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