Two Degrees of Separation

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2014-05-22 – Liberals and conservatives in Congress have apparently found one thing they can agree on. 179 Republicans and 124 Democrats voted today to pass the USA Freedom Act to limit the collection of US phone data by the NSA.

The right of phone companies to collect and store this data remains. Phone companies will now be the protectors of our fourth amendment rights. When the NSA wants data beyond that allowed by the new legislation, they will need to get a warrant from a court in a secret proceeding, which only the phone company will know about.

The new legislation, if passed, creates a new standard for NSA surveillance. They will be entitled to phone records only of those callers who are two degrees of separation or less away from an actual suspect. Previously, the NSA was operating under a standard that said that your records were fair game if you were within six degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon.

Of course, the entire planet is within six degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon. Two degrees is actually a significant improvement, as is the need to connect to an actual suspect rather than Kevin Bacon.

Networks of connection grow exponentially. I may talk to four people on the phone on an average day. So there are four people in my first degree of separation. (The NSA standard isn’t limited to a single day, but I’m using that for illustration.) I probably talk to fewer than average. Say that the people I talk to average five calls, so my second degree of separation now includes 24 people. If they talk to five each, the third degree of separation would include 144 people—and so on. But the NSA authority will stop at 24 people—and only if I am a suspect.

It’s fortunate that the authority stops at the second degree. The exponential growth I described above grows even faster if there is someone in the network who contacts an extraordinary number of people, like a politician or a celebrity. They magnify the number of people you are connected to enormously.

To give you an idea, I have 514 first-degree connections on LinkedIn. Some of these people I don’t even know, but there are people I do know that are not on LinkedIn, so let’s say I have around 500 I am truly connected to in one way or another. Let’s say I am average. The math then would say that there are 250,000 second-degree connections, but many of my first-degree connections are connected to each other. We’re all a group or a small number of groups (the family group, the work group, the school group, etc.) so my second-degree connections aren’t really bumped up to a quarter of a million. Maybe it’s only 1,000 or 2,000.

Politicians.might have 10,000 people in their first-degree group and they are not limited to friends and family. So if I am connected to one of these people at the first-degree, then my second-degree group is now enormous by piggybacking on the politician’s group.

It may not be easy, though, to have one of these people in your first-degree group. I don’t. But it’s pretty easy to have one of these people in your second-degree group. Without having any significantly influential connections myself, I know that I have more than one President of the United States in my second-degree group. Believe me, I can’t call these Presidents on the phone. This is just an illustration of the way networks work.

This second-degree connection does not inflate the number of people who are connected to me at the second degree, but it does enormously inflate the number of people who are connected to me at the third degree and beyond.

But, under the new legislation, the NSA can’t get to the third degree connections without suspicion and a warrant.

So it’s good that the authorization stops at the second degree.

Of course, this legislation has not passed the Senate. Who knows what the bill will look like then.

2 responses to “Two Degrees of Separation

  1. We need something stricter than this bill but it’s better than nothing. I hope this is just the first step.

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