07 July 2013

Pam, Prism, and Poindexter

A week and a half ago, David Edgerley Gates wrote a column, Through a Glass, Darkly, discussing PRISM, TIA, NSA, and Edward Snowden. As I tapped out a comment in response, it grew and grew until I realized I had an article based on the premise governments worry more what their citizens think than what their enemies know. Historically, governments prefer a blind citizenry, a practice anathema to our founding fathers (and presumably mothers).

Snow Job

I harbor mixed feelings about Snowden, and while I seldom agree with Fox News about anything, I’m slow to tar the man. After all, what is his crime?

He revealed the NSA spies on us.

What? You’re surprised? And revealing a crime’s a crime?

Thanks to the Orwellian USA PATRIOT Acts, it may well be. All hell rained down with thus far spurious claims that Snowden will defect to China or Russia or Venezuela or Narnia. Apparently Moscow and Caracas made offers, but he turned Venezuela down and hasn’t responded to Putin. Yesterday, CBS News reported the Venezuelan offer remains open but Russia wishes to close the door on the issue. Ecuador and Bolivia remain possibilities.

I would prefer Snowden return to the US where he runs the risk of becoming either a political pariah or a cult hero. But, given the twisting of US law to declare even Americans enemy combatants, to imprison people without trial, and the sins of rendition, I’m not surprised he chose otherwise.

Despite the outcry, at this juncture there’s no evidence he’s divulged information (other than the US spies on its friends and citizens) to any outside country. I’d like to think he wouldn’t, but time will tell.

The Spies Among Us

Let us not focus on Snowden but his revelation: We’re spied upon. Here is where rubber meets the road, where liberals and conservatives break with left and right. Our readers know this but, those who think 'left' and 'liberal' or 'conservative' and 'right' are synonymous haven’t been paying attention. True liberals and conservatives recognize a nation spied upon is preyed upon and in danger of losing its freedom.

We’re like wussy parents whose daughters spend all night out wearing less clothing than a cartoon duck, and then express shock when the girls turn up pregnant. Who do people blame when they turn a blind eye? Are we angry to learn our government has gone all-Animal Farm or are we furious another Daniel Ellsberg peeled the scales from our eyes?

Most of us in the software industry knew (or suspected) spying all along. Ten years ago our government supposedly banned the Information Awareness Office (IAO) and by extension the NSA from spying on us, yet the outsourcing contracts quietly continued. Private firms continued development. Now ask yourself this question: Does a business continue a program that has only one potential customer unless they expect to turn a profit?

Sheep Herding

Shaping a citizenry has gone by various names such as dynamic social engineering, societal actualization, and in darker moments, ‘sheep-herding’. Three guesses who the sheep are.

Total Information Awareness was the dystopian brainchild of John Poindexter, the Dr. Strangelove of an all-seeing Information Awareness Office. For years, politicians and citizens chose to overlook his more outrageous programs such as rewards for spying against your neighbors and reporting upon your friends. Poindexter became an embarrassment to the Bush/Cheney administration, even through they encapsulated his proposals in such Machiavellian legislation as the misnamed USA PATRIOT Acts I and II.

By 2003, Poindexter’s liability grew to such political proportions, Don Rumsfeld had enough. He asked the admiral to resign over a project called Policy Analysis Market, PAM, part of a larger program called Future Map. Although PAM was conceived long before Poindexter came on board, he was credited– or blamed– and certainly confused with its invention.

The public reacted with gut outrage to PAM. Some bloggers misunderstood PAM asking “Is it outside the box or off the wall?”

Perhaps it was a bit of both, because genius usually is. I like off-the-wall, outside-the-box and those crazy, trite expressions of invention. PAM emerged from a theory of efficient markets and 'dumb agent' discovery, to wit: An international market with possibly millions of participants making thousands of decisions creates a 'price' equilibrium that portends more information than even a collective of experts.  Who knows if the notion would succeed or fail, but the concept was bizarrely brilliant.

Political fallout raged. Some called PAM terrorism futures, a catastrophe casino, a death pool, a stock market of anarchy, and even “a federal betting parlor on atrocities.” But imagine a real life Minority Report where hundreds, thousands, perhaps millions of people weigh in on a geopolitical futures market, who might be financially rewarded for participation. What could be more capitalistic than wagering on death and destruction?

Well, yeah, if it helped prevent death and destruction.

Cooking with PAM

PAM began as a $2-million DARPA research project designed to test the ability of speculative markets to forecast overall global trends, not just terror prognostication, but economic, civil, political, and military indicators. Such a market might have predicted Obama’s reelection, an uprising in Libya, or that Egypt's President Morsi could be ousted, not to mention a terror attack in Boston or London.

How might this work?

Last month I wrote about working in New York’s financial district. As I mentioned, one of the first things Wall Street denizens learn is the stock market is emotional. It reacts, even over-reacts to every bit of news.

The US Air Force web site Air University points out that commodity traders regularly analyze events in the Middle East to gauge futures prices. Likewise, events around the world determine market prices of wheat, corn, soybeans, rare earth metals, and cotton. And similarly, national and international news affects arbitrage pricing theory.

PAM proponents reason if buying and selling in Chicago and New York can divine prognostications from world events, why can’t we devise further predictive tools based upon reactions from the free market? Why not foster a program that could foretell regime change in the People’s Democratic Republic of Krasnovia, bankruptcy of the Duchy of Grand Fenwick, or assassination of the Marxist President of Freedonia.

Those in the know, those involved in the project like USAF’s Robert Looney and George Mason University’s Robin Hanson, believe intelligence gathered through market sources could be far more accurate and reliable than present methods, including input from experts and analysts (polls and Delphi methodology), espionage, and especially torture. Some point to a recent example of a massive and embarrassing failure of traditional techniques: the invasion of Iraq based upon a political delusion that Iraq must possess weapons of mass destruction. Advocates of PAM not only believe they could have determined the answer, but also predicted the destructive, counter-productive result of toppling Iraq.

So that’s the much-reviled Policy Analysis Market. No spying, no sleep deprivation or torture, no rendition, no violation of human rights. Just smart guessing– or gambling.


  1. Leigh: I too have ambivalent feelings regarding Snowden. But, to my way of thinking, if his purpose was to alert us Americans as to government intrusion, a true "patriot" would have stood his ground. Anybody remember Muhammad Ali? To tell the truth,I wouldn't know what to do. Great post. Yours truly, Toe.

  2. Toe, I remember the struggle Cassius Clay went through. He might not have guessed a bunch of Midwestern white kids were on his side.

  3. I’m also ambivalent about Snowden. What bothers me the most is the outsourcing of intelligent gathering for the government. I certainly would expect that sooner or later some employee of the contractor would leak information either for a price or as an act of patriotism.

    I’m also not clear about what Snowden revealed. Didn’t we already know that the NSA, FBI and other intelligent agency was and is spying on us citizens?

  4. As early as 2000, the computing industry revealed an FBI-developed 'sniffing' program called Carnivore to monitor internet traffic. Later reports suggest the FBI abandoned that particular program in favor of commercial software to do the same job.

    In 2006, we learned through government leaks that we were spied upon electronically, although the Bush/Cheney administration refused to confirm or deny. We were then reassured our government would no longer spy upon its citizens, but obviously that continues.

  5. In a way, we've given our government an impossible task– find the bad guys and do it without trampling civil liberties. As pointed out many times before, terror prevention must succeed every time, but the bad guys have to succeed only once.

    I'm having an off-line discussion with David Gates. He describes PAM with a terrific phrase 'hysteria index'.

  6. If Snowden took much of his "stolen" information with him in his laptops (or flash drives), that info could already be in the hands of the Chinese or Russians, even without him knowingly giving it to them. After all, he's been in a No-Man's Land for some time with no real protection and he can't very well stay awake 24/7 to guard his possessions and secret documents. We may not know for decades what information actually got transferred to the other side, regardless of his intentions.

  7. Let's face it, Leigh. No matter how many freedoms we give up or how many are taken away, there is no such thing as true and absolute security. It’s just not possible in our crazy world. Freedom, like everything else has its risks.

  8. Vicki, that's all too true. I keep thinking of that rant in the film Little Murders.

    That's true, RT. It occurs to me if he's carrying truly sensitive data, it could be vulnerable if he's carrying it on or attached to a NFC device, 'near field communications'. As an outgrowth of social networking, most high-end cell phones, credit card scanners, and NFC-equipped laptops can 'read' other devices that are in proximity but not physically touching. Victims have had credit cards stolen– the data, not the actual card.

    Passive NFC doesn't even require batteries. They include credit cards and the newer tollway ePass/ezPass devices– they're completely inert until a radio wave passes through them and 'powers' a thin coil, allowing them to respond. In theory, a passive NFC device could be buried in 2013, dug up in 3013, and still work… without being touched.

  9. (1) I feel certain that Snowden has been frisked/searched/stolen from, whether he knows it or not, after all these days in the transit lounge.
    (2) I don't like outsourcing of ANYthing, but especially security. Throughout history, mercenaries have never been trustworthy, mainly because they are mercenaries, working for the highest bidder.
    (3) PMA sounds useful - but we might not ever have gotten into the current fix re Iraq and Afghanistan if the US State Department and US Military hadn't been hijacked by ideologues (the neo-cons) who didn't have a f***ing clue about history or culture other than their own think tanks. I could have told them that the invasion of Iraq was insane, not from the point of WMD (which I never believed Saddam Hussein had), but because when we took out Saddam Hussein, we took out Osama Bin Laden's chief enemy in the Middle East. Oh, that's right, I did - I wrote a letter to every person in the government I could get an address for, up to and including Cheney and Bush.
    (4) The tendency to shepherds to despise the sheep is universal and on-going, and we have to fight it tooth and nail. At the same time yes, there is no such thing as 100% security, unless you are willing to do a Little Murders and never set foot outside your bunker (sadly, I know a couple of people who are doing just that).
    (5) There is a terrible hilarity, though, in people screaming about loss of privacy in a world where people post their poops on line. The only 100% privacy is between our ears. So far.

  10. "Our readers know this, but those who think left and liberal or conservative and right are synonymous haven’t been paying attention. True liberals and conservatives recognize a nation spied upon is preyed upon and in danger of losing its freedom."

    Perfectly said. This situation is the most distressing I have seen in over a decade. There's a huge difference between people voluntarily disclosing private information and it being taken and collected without their knowledge. It doesn't matter how sensitive or important that information is, or how innocent of wrong-doing they are. Because once the system exists, it can be used any time and for any purpose.

  11. This is one of those articles we need to read. I love my country but hate knowing what government is capable of. I never heard of Pam before but it sounds interesting.

  12. Eve, I certainly agree. Arguably the situation in Iraq came bout because of a son not listening to his father.

    Anon, people of good heart and good sense should find common ground in situations like these. Thanks for pointing that out. I sometimes wonder about that sociology maxim that the act of observing alters the environment being observed.

    BJD, that well sums it up. I find I can't cannot know what goes on. Some of it seems too wild for fiction.

  13. Interesting: The PAM theory sounds similar in nature to "Seldon's Law".

  14. Asimov? That's an interesting, apt, and spooky connection!

  15. And from friends in Africa (who note Morsi's name is spelled incorrectly) comes this CNN report about a data analytics program called Senturion that two years ago predicted the next leader's ouster:

    Team of political scientists saw Egypt's turmoil coming


    Washington (CNN) -- Using game theory and data analytics, a group of political scientists predicted Egypt's current turmoil back in 2011 as the Mubarak regime was falling, and is now working to forecast the country's future.

  16. Anne Flaherty10 July, 2013 14:21

    I don't know how to give or find the address, but 3 hours ago AP released a story by Anne Flaherty called The price of surveillance: Gov't pays to snoop. Very interesting and connecting article. Bel

  17. acq at the Reg14 July, 2013 00:49


  18. And we're doing this:

  19. Apparently spying on our citizens is far more extensive than even Snowden let on and congress doesn't give a damn. I fear it's too late and too powerful to stop.

    Don't know if you caught it, but el Reg reports 2 secure email providers, Lavabit and Silent Circle, both closed their doors in the same week rather than capitulate to NSA demands they open their files.

  20. Well great. It immediately swallowed my comment. whooo, spooks in action.

  21. This is the tip of the iceberg, but you weren't the only one to see a connection with Dr. Strangelove. Let's see if I can get this link right:


  22. NSA collects data from Windows computers:


  23. A couple of links may interest you:



  24. FYI: http://io9.com/need-more-reasons-to-feel-paranoid-about-the-nsa-watch-1495875117

  25. Dystopian? I'd rather you all just say thank you.


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