Six degrees of separation? More like 4.74, per a study of Facebook users done in 2011.
What does that have to do with the National Security Agency? It turns out they've been tracking phone records for up to "three hops" from each terror suspect, reports GigaOm. If it only takes 4.74 hops to reach any other person on the planet (or at least any other Facebooker, which is more than one-tenth of the world's population), that's a pretty significantly large cohort of individuals caught up in the NSA fishing expedition.
If the hops-and-degrees perspective isn't clear, think about it like this: every phone number the terrorist calls, every number those recipients call, and every number those recipients call. Exponential isn't a big enough word to describe the scope of surveillance.
On the other hand, you can take heart in the notion that if you aren't very important, the NSA might not be paying as much attention to you. According to GigaOm, the algorithm used by the NSA prioritizes certain users based on their connections and popularity. Lonelier insignificant folks may be ignored, even if they are within three "hops" of a terror suspect.
There's other good news as well. The Atlantic reports that geolocation data was not part of the data mining effort. NSA Deputy Director Chris Inglis, who also let the "three hops" information slip, testified the NSA was not tracking geolocation data "under this program." (The geolocation program hasn't been leaked yet. But if Congress wants to know about a program they've never heard of, all they have to do is ask specifically about that program.)
It's a good thing, legally, that they're not tracking location data. Though it's a grey area, as is the cell phone metadata, jurisdictions nationwide are inching toward recognizing geolocation data mining as a violation of the Fourth Amendment. According to Ars Technica, a New Jersey court held as much last week. Montana passed such a law earlier this year, and the Fourth Circuit has a case about geolocation data currently pending.
Then again, if you ask some members of the House of Representatives, (or us), they'll say that the NSA has already broken the law. The Atlantic provides some quite critical quotes from the hearing:
Representative Ted Poe of Texas asked, "Do you see a national security exemption in the Fourth Amendment? ... We've abused the concept of rights in the name of national security." Ranking Minority Member John Conyers of Michigan stated, "You've already violated the law in my opinion."
We couldn't agree more. What's your take?