A panel of high-profile Columbia professors attacked the National Security Agency’s surveillance operations Tuesday evening, saying the agency’s actions have a negative impact on journalism, academia, and human rights.
The event, which focused on big data and government surveillance, was the first in the Committee on Global Thought’s Urgent Issue series.
Sociology professor Saskia Sassen, the co-chair of the committee, moderated a discussion between Emily Bell, the director of the Journalism School’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism; Mark Hansen, the director of the Journalism School’s David and Helen Gurley Brown Institute for Media Innovation; and Rebecca MacKinnon, a former Journalism School professor in residence.
Throughout the evening, panelists and audience members discussed the ramifications of the NSA’s possession of an unprecedented amount of data on citizens around the world, and the role of journalists and academics in the context of such uncertain territory.
“Surveillance is not new,” Sassen said, gesturing to a U.S. map marked with nearly 10,000 dots, each representing a security agency or private firm that collects big data. What is new, she said, is the extent to which big data is involved in government surveillance.
“For the system to work, in the first place, we are all suspects,” she said.
Bell complimented leaker Edward Snowden and the Guardian newspaper—where she worked in the past as director of digital content—for recent revelations about the NSA. This information “laid bare a lot of things that people thought they intellectually knew but didn’t feel, for example, the intersection of governmental and commercial interests,” she said.
Companies like Facebook and Google control vast amounts of data, Bell said.
“A lot of our information is held by organizations that may have the best of intentions, but that are not intrinsically journalistic or academic,” she said. “They serve a commercial purpose.”
And unlike traditional news sources that protect confidential sources, she added, these companies “lack source protection and a focus on the responsible dissemination of information.”
MacKinnon, author of “Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom,” also talked about how corporations use data.
“Our civil and political lives are increasingly mediated by the private companies that provide the platform through which we organize the world,” she noted, stressing the importance of holding companies accountable to human rights standards and demanding transparency about how they collect, use, and share data.
“When power is abused, we must be able to know,” she said. “Otherwise, our democratic future is in the balance.”
Despite these issues, Hansen emphasized that big data is important to understand because it is a “critical component of storytelling” in modern journalism.
“I explain it to my students as the ‘three V’s,’” Hansen said. “Volume, velocity, and variety.”
Students said the questions raised at the panel were particularly relevant to their lives.
“We are a generation of cord-nevers,” Anne Waldman, SIPA/Journalism ’14, said. “The internet has been our only highway toward information.”
“If we don’t learn about it, we can’t sustain an open, democratic society,” Waldman said.
Joanna Chiu, Journalism ’12, who reported on Edward Snowden’s stay in Hong Kong for the South China Morning Post, said that journalists often fail to address the technological details of high-tech surveillance.
“As a journalist, it’s so important to understand the context,” Chiu said.
Max Fiest, CC ’17, said he thought that the ideas of big data and surveillance are important for all students to keep in mind when it comes to internet privacy and safety.
It’s normal to “do things like enter your phone number on a website, but you don’t recognize that once you do that, you become a data point,” he said.
Benjamin Dean, SIPA ’14, said he was interested in the panel’s discussion about protecting confidential journalistic sources.
“The safety of sources is so important,” Dean said. “Someone can verify that the source exists but not link back to their identity.”
“I wish they would have touched more on encryption,” he added. “It’s a tough nut to crack.”
Well, maybe not for the NSA.