Big Brother meets Network Analysis?

29 September 2013, 1130 EDT

A story in the New York Times this morning suggests that the National Security Agency has been analyzing our social networks through email and phone call records, apparently accomplishing “large-scale graph analysis on very large sets of communications metadata” of American citizens and foreign citizens alike.  This network analysis uses not only contact data but GPS tracking to understand not only how we relate but how we move in relationship to each other.

From the description in the article, the methods that the NSA uses seem to be very similar to those that political science is using, in Michael Ward, Katherine Stovel, and Audrey Sacks’ words, to locate the “holy grail” of  “effectively analyzing the interdependence and flows of influence among individuals, groups, and institutions,” a sea-change in the field.

I’m not arguing that we as political scientists have culpability in this (these methods did not originate in our field by any stretch of the imagination). But I am interested – if network analysis does the cool things it does for our work, what does it do for the work of those whose job is to watch and monitor us?

We are getting used to reading network analysis about the networks that we find intellectually interesting in global politics (see, e.g., the discussion of Emilie Hafner-Burton, Miles Kahler, and Alex Montgomery) – where people and groups are relatively positioned and relatively understood. This has been applied to networks of nations (e.g., Zeev Maoz’s book) to the formation of trade agreements (e.g., Mark Manger, Mark Pickup, and Tom Snijders’ article) in ways that arguable radically improve the explanatory power of substantive theories in those areas, and at the very least provide both a very different look and significantly more available information.

So what of social network analyses of which we are the subject, rather than the researcher? If my reading of the utility of network analysis is correct, then intelligence will learn more, faster, and that learning will constitute more useful information about who people are and what they do than simple spying. As an abstract application, then, it seems efficient and appropriate. It is, however, the very non-abstractness of this that is interesting to me: the fact that it very well may be happening to any one of us. To me, as much as I enjoy reading network analysis of social, political, and economic network analysis of phenomena in global politics, I have less than no interest in there ever being network analyses of me. However one is politically disposed towards intelligence gathering, this seems to be a major development in it (or at least in our knowledge of what they do) that requires substantive consideration.