Global Surveillance, Remapped

A ‘heat map’ published by The Guardian last month exposed the massive collection of the world’s electronic data by the US National Security Agency over a 30-day period in March 2013. The chart sparked immediate controversy and diplomatic outcry, as nations allied to the United States discovered they were subject to a massive programme of unrestricted electronic surveillance.

The original map, however, was misleading. Its colour-code reflected the absolute number of data elements (DNI) gathered, rather than the intensity of snooping. However most people care about their own privacy: that is, given the country in which you live, how much of your personal communication is being scooped by the NSA?

To answer this puzzle, Factblink reanalysed the Guardian heat-map data. The original map uses a continuous colour-coding scheme, so by extracting the red-green-blue information we are able to obtain a continuous “colour intensity” variable for all countries. From the slide we already have actual DNI figures for six countries, as well as knowledge of the total number of items, and together with a few extra parameters (e.g. no negative values, non-linear scaling) we can impute the remaining values. Combined with internet usage data by country, this allows us to work out the intensity of collection, on a per internet user basis (below).

Internet Surveillance per User

Adjusting ‘per internet user’ does remove some of the ‘odd’ results discussed in the media in recent weeks. Brazil is no longer an outlier; nor India. China even appears relatively low. It is clear that surveillance is concentrated across the Middle East (the entire Middle East) with the most intense surveillance, per user, in countries like Somalia and Libya.

Yet even after reanalysis, some curious results remain. If the purpose is counter-terrorism, why are German citizens still above the rest of Western Europe? And why does so much information appear to come from countries such as Greece, Lithuania and Georgia?

Finally, the analysis reveals an unfortunate irony. Despite controversy over the collection of 3bn data items within the US, relative to data volume Americans subject themselves to only a fraction of the unwarranted surveillance that they impose on the world.  Yet just fifteen days after the collection period reported in the heat-map (mid-April, 2013), two bombs exploded in Boston that were planted by long-term residents of the United States, one an American citizen. These were, moveover, the first ‘successful’ terrorist attack in America since September 11th. The sad fact is that under the system established by successive administrations, even American terrorists have more right to privacy than peaceful, law-abiding citizens of the world.