Data Mining Lessons for Obama

Earlier this month an ex-CIA employee and whistleblower, Edward Snowden, exposed the federal government’s 6-year old, clandestine initiative, referred to internally as PRISM, a covert data-gathering program that began in 2007 as a corollary to the Patriot Act of 2001. This White House-directed, domestic-espionage project has been collecting phone logs of millions of U.S. citizens from major telecommunication giants (e.g., Verizon, AT&T, and Sprint) and emails from nine prominent Internet companies (e.g., Google, Yahoo, Apple, Microsoft) in a concerted effort to thwart future terrorist attacks.  

History shows that PRISM has prevented numerous incidences, including a foiled backpack bombing plot in New York in 2009. Despite its undisputed success record, PRISM has ignited a national debate on whether the administration has gone too far seeking tighter security at the expense of civil liberties. In a statement to the American people, President Obama argues that his actions are justified.

 “You can’t have 100-percent security and also then have 100-percent privacy and zero inconvenience,” he famously stated. “We’re going to have to make some choices as a society.”

Not surprising, many Americans disagree with Obama’s position and have taken action. Among them is Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky), who will soon introduce a class action suit of which he hopes to obtain more than 10 million signatures. Those in favor of Obama’s PRISM believe that the price to pay for security is small in comparison. Just how damaging can a diverted phone log be to anyone, or a random email read, for that matter, if terrorist attacks can be prevented? However, when the process requires canvassing mountains of data that could randomly incriminate anyone, the fundamental basis for the U.S. judicial system where defendants are considered innocent until proven guilty, is truly at risk.

‘Con’ concerns do not stop there. Dissenters argue that PRISM has set a precedent for further erosion of individual freedom. Without a counter mechanism in place, future leaders will more than likely continue to up the ante on domestic surveillance until an unimaginable, automated version of a Russian-style KGB informant process becomes undetectable and virtually unstoppable. If you are skeptical, consider what happened with consumer debt after Reagan’s supply-side economics took hold: Every American consumer was doused with credit cards. The combination of economic bubbles that followed eroded the effectiveness of our elected leaders in Washington who today are trusted by less than 20 percent of the population.

If eliminating PRISM is not an option, then what mechanisms can be put into place, early on, to prevent domestic surveillance from reducing our individual freedom… and what solutions have worked in the past, and with whom?

Data Mining vs Mining Precious Metals
Lessons can be learned from another type of mining activity that is very similar to mining data, namely, mining for precious metals in some of the most remote areas on the planet. Surprisingly, the operational principles of the two efforts are nearly identical. In both cases expensive machinery and sophisticated software are used to sieve through enormous amounts of data/ore. Both identify specific assets (i.e., key leads/gold nuggets) that in aggregate could create exceptional value, a value so great that individuals, corporations, or governments would break laws or silence whistleblowers to secure its use or acquisition. Finally, both processes are confronted with a conflicting tradeoff that involves the invasion of privacy of a constituency of voters.

Just as Americans feel an attack on their personal freedom from PRISM’s data mining activities, local communities in Peru, Congo, Guatemala, South Africa to name of few, experience a similar personal upheaval when global mining companies (i.e. Barrick Gold, Rio Tinto and many, many more) set up operations without the communities’ consultation or consent. Environmental disasters, such as toxic chemicals found in the water supply or increasing numbers of birth deaths or defects, have exposed rogue mining operations and over time have forced the hand of powerful politicians and legislatures to comply with legal mechanisms that protect the rights of affected community members.

Recent examples include Peru’s mining town of Bagua where 34 people were killed in 2008 in a staged military attack against peaceful indigenous demonstrators. In the Congo, where many rare-earth minerals are used to make mobile phones and appliances, increasing local uprisings have forced mining operations valued at $1 billion to close.  These uprising are clear evidence of a failed system or policy. They offer a lesson and illustration of a similar dark future for Obama’s PRISM project, if left uncontested.

The striking resemblance between data mining and traditional mining suggests that some of the best practices used to resolve conflicts in the mining industry could also be applied to the PRISM project to safeguard it from escalating and potentially causing a ‘trust rift’ between the US government and the American people.

American Society/Council of the Americas
At a recent gathering of the American Society/Council of the Americas (AS/COA) in New York City, a distinguished expert-panel with deep field experiences working on some of the toughest mining-related conflicts in the world offered their insights, best practices and ongoing recommendations to a packed audience of interested parties of non-profits, NGOs, and private investors. (AS/COAs recent issue of, Americas Quarterly, covers additional details.)

To qualify as a best practice, the panel highlighted a simple yet fundamental metric that involves a transparent two-way conversation between the mining company’s project (consultation) and the local communities concerns(consent). Social unrest is almost inevitable when the conversation becomes opaque and one-way or as referred to by the industry, “consultation without consent”. Fortunately, legislative progress continues in countries like Peru where mining laws have been passed that require both consultation and consent, for example, in cases where a community is forced to move.

One of the expert panelists, Rachel Davis, the managing director at ShiftProject.org, highlighted the imperative need to include consent mechanisms. To this end she outlined three key challenges that mining companies must address properly to ensure an open-dialogue with an impacted, local community.

  1. Offer a venue for consultation but be prepared to spend at least one month of face time to earn the people’s trust.  “Trust,” she emphasized, “is the imperative currency for collaboration.”
  2. Train staff members within the mining company to develop a genuinely concerned attitude along with the skills to handle awkward conversations or even hostile responses.
  3. Ensure available access within the company to handle grievances and capacity-building, coordination efforts within a cross-functional, corporate structure.

Emily Greenspan, the Senior Policy Advisor at Oxfam America, tweaked Davis’ three points by adding one more important stipulation. She recommended that mining companies evaluate how decisions are made at local levels.

“Taking the time to understand the culture, temperament, timing requirements, and so much more are crucial from the out start,” Greenspan explained. 

Her comments reminded me of President Obama’s lunch engagements with members of Congress earlier this year. They were, in my opinion, too little, too late to have the desired effect. Had Obama requested these luncheons at the beginning of his first term, perhaps the paralyzing partisan gridlock that we have today would have found common ground. The lesson learned is the vital importance of getting to know your audience from the beginning; otherwise the cost of catching up becomes prohibitive and meaningless.

With the looming ‘black cloud’ surrounding the PRISM Project, Obama would do well to learn from his prior experiences and heed the advice from field experts, many of whom are already within his administration and working on  global mining issues for precious metals. Why not tap on their wealth of experience to help clean up the PRISM project mess?

As history has shown in the mining industry, time may be running out for Obama. A failed policy of this magnitude could turn into an irreversible tide of social unrest.

© 2013 Tom Kadala

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