Democracy down the rabbit hole

when (loss of) freedom is a hop, skip and a jump away

3 hops is a lot

The NSA is allowed to travel “three hops” from its spying targets — that means, in surveillance turns, talking to people who talk to people who talk to people who talk to you.

Three hops might not sound like a lot — after all, it’s a big world with billions of people. Three hops won’t get you very far, most people reason. Most people feel there are innumerable hops between them and a terrorist, or criminal. But that would be confusing the illusion of explanatory depth with actual knowledge. The fact that people feel they understand that three hops isn’t much is of course not the same as knowing.

And as this Guardian article shows, three hops is a lot indeed, far more than most people would guess.

Source: The Guardian “Three degrees of separation: breaking down the NSA’s ‘hops’ surveillance method” Monday 28 October 2013 15.58 GMT

If you think this chart represents the radical connectedness of people in the modern era, you’d be wrong. We’re more connected than ever, it’s true, but we were never further away than six degrees of separation, even before the internet.

we were never further away than six degrees of separation, even before the internet

The notion that as the size of the population grows, so does your disconnectedness from its furthest reaches is not accurate, and computers have nothing to do with it — it’s just a flawed notion that fails to take into account a true understanding of exponential growth.

It’s the same flawed notion that causes people to vastly overestimate how many people it takes on average to fill a room before a birthday is repeated, or how many times you’d need to fold a piece of paper to get to the moon.*

*75 and 42, respectively

Failure to understand the implications of exponential growth is similar to the failure to grasp the implications of compounded interest, which is the main reason why everyone alive in 1919 with $40 in their pocket (~$550 in today’s money) didn’t line up to buy Coca Cola stock when it went public; they were unable to conceive of such a small investment returning a material long-term profit….much less $5 million in just fifty years, which is what that investment would be worth today.

The six degrees of separation theory was first proposed in 1929 by the Hungarian writer Frigyes Karinthy. In 1967, an American sociologist (Milgram) devised “the small-world problem” test that famously quantified Karinthy’s theory; his findings were further validated by the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) which gave rise to the game The Oracle of Bacon.

In 2001, Milgram’s experiment was recreated on the Internet using email message as the proxy for a package, which again validated six as the average number of intermediaries between any two random people.

So the ubiquity of email hasn’t brought us closer together….i.e. its utility, great as it can be, did not shrink the number of degrees of separation between people. Neither did big corporate monopolies: in 2008, Microsoft analyzed 180 billion Messenger messages and found the average chain length between any pair of users was

What has changed the number of degrees between people — vastly shrinking it — was social media. In 2016, researchers at Facebook reported that the social networking site had reduced the chain length of its members — thanks to Dutch mathematician Edsger Dijkstra’s algorithm — to three and a half degrees of separation.

Mobility — specifically, mobile phone usage — has made the world even smaller, at least from a spying point of view. When Stanford’s Center for Internet Studies began collecting cell phone data through an app called MetaPhone with the objective to reverse engineer the NSA’s 3 hops of surveillance rule, the research team was surprised to see the notion of disconnectedness in a big big world quantifiably disputed:

“Given our small, scattershot, and time-limited sample of phone activity, we expected our graph to be largely disconnected. After all, just one pair from our hundreds of participants had held a call.”

To their surprise, though, the CIS findings show that numbers dialed frequently by random individuals may link entire populations with just two hops.

In other words, the three hops rule may be unnecessarily broad. The NSA can legally spy more with less, if it wants to justify it.

Between Verizon and Facebook, NSA analysts can legally obtain the call records and online data of most if not all U.S. citizens. Considering Facebook has 2 billion users, with 52% of the entire global internet-using population reporting they have a Facebook account that they check (at least) monthly, that means the NSA can, with Facebook’s cooperation, legally spy on half the world.

According to a report by The Guardian and Zuckerberg’s own statements, the likelihood of cooperation is fairly high.

Source: Here’s how often Apple, Google, and others handed over data when the US government asked for it

Whether by serendipity or design, in choosing its language the NSA has created a linguistic context that defuses public concern. How concerned need we be with a hop, after all?

“It doesn’t affect me,” shrugged an acquaintance over lunch. We’ll call him Evan. “I’m not doing anything wrong.”

Evan and his wife are nice people. They live in the Bay area, they have two daughters, they are church-going, conservative and humble.

They ALSO have Ivy League educations, not unlike those rounded up by Erdogan in Turkey, where more than 113,000 people have been arrested or detained and tens of thousands have lost their jobs since the July 2016 coup attempt. I’m sure many of these nice people were hauled off in the dead of night protesting they haven’t done anything wrong, and they were right, but without rights (like privacy), such things are no longer a matter of right and wrong. They are matters of power, and the war, however dirty, to keep it.

I didn’t point out to Evan that ‘doing something wrong’ is often a matter of perspective rather than objectively followed morals…especially when someone more powerful than you gets to be your judge, jury and executioner.

I’m sure the people who gathered together recently for a photo in Malaysia didn’t think they were doing anything wrong by holding a meet-up — the fact that they took group selfies and posted to a public Facebook page seems to suggest they considered themselves a benign gathering of ordinary people, not wrongdoers.

at least one person in this photo is aware of the risks

The meet-up was for secular citizens — what could be wrong with that? Well, if you’re a punitive-minded Muslim in a position of power, a lot:

The government will investigate if there are Muslims who have joined the Kuala Lumpur Atheist Club. If it is proven that there are Muslims involved in atheist activities that could affect their faith, the state Islamic religious departments or Jawi could take action.
~Deputy Minister Datuk Dr Asyraf Wajdi Dusuki


Nice people not doing anything wrong are rounded up by their governments for all sorts of reasons — sometimes ‘terrorism’ is the excuse. Sometimes it’s just a government going rogue on the rights of citizens it finds threatening or distasteful,

….as in the case of the Muslims with atheist friends in Malaysia
… as in the case of Americans suspected of communism by Joe McCarthy
… as in the case of Japanese Americans suspected of being ominous by General John DeWitt
…as in the case of Germans suspected of being Jewish — or socialist, or Rom, or disabled, or any number of things — by Adolf Hitler and his thugocracy.

I think of the people of Turkey, the many thousands who lost their jobs, freedom, and lives; for the remaining citizens hunkered down beneath the shelling, how many hops between a bad situation — and one that is even worse? Suddenly three hops no longer has an innocuous ring; with the proper context, we can now see that three hops takes us not down the bunny trail to safety and security, but straight down the rabbit hole — a place, according to the urban dictionary, of ‘chaos and confusion’ populated with characters straight from the fever dreams of Lewis Carroll: the inscrutable cheshire smiles of politicians, the perpetually, cartoonishly enraged dictator screaming “Off with their heads!”, a pack of armed cards rushing ineptly (but no less dangerously for all that) to oblige.