Ron Miller: NSA can track every email, but it can't find a plane

When a world that's characterized by ubiquitous data collection and surveillance can lose sight of a jumbo jet, you start to question the worth of all that spying on us

On March 8, news broke that a Malaysia Airlines flight bound for Beijing had disappeared. No trace has been found since. How can a plane disappear in an age when virtually the entire planet is draped by satellite coverage, the ground is covered by radar installations, and state surveillance bodies like the National Security Agency can supposedly track our every move.

That a jumbo jet could simply disappear without a trace is mind-boggling. We are told that the NSA is collecting every bit of data on us. We are told that we can be easily tracked through our smartphones and other electronic devices. We are told that this data collection is done in the name of making us safer, by stopping a terrorist attack in real time.

We are led to believe that if we collect enough information -- indeed, if we collect all of the information -- we can see the connections and make the leaps and stop attacks before they happen.

That's what we're told. That's the justification for all this surveillance. And yet if we can't find a jumbo jet after nine days in a world covered by satellite cameras and radar facilities, are we supposed to believe that collecting every one of our emails and listening to every one of our phone calls and following every one of us around as we move through our lives will make us safer?

For all our brains and all our computers and all our data, an airplane can still just disappear without a trace for nine days and we can't find it. In fact, we have no bloody idea where it is. We are told after nine long days that there are 370 runways within the fuel capacity range of the airliner that could have accommodated landing a jet of this size.

MIT aeronautics professor John Hansman explained to The Boston Globe that it's pretty darn hard to disappear with a jumbo jet in this day and age -- I would think so -- because ground radar would pick it up as it approached land. And even if you picked the usual rogue-state suspects, it's just not likely it could go undetected.

"Stealth operation gets tougher closer to the coasts, where most countries have a lot of primary radar operating, and it's even harder flying over land, particularly heavily militarized borders," Hansman told the Globe.

And so we find ourselves nine days after the plane simply disappeared reading news reports suggesting that officials are no closer to finding it, and in fact, appear to be grasping at straws. As The New York Times reports, the U.S. government believes that terrorism was involved, but the fact is that despite the vastness of our data-collecting machine, we have no idea what happened to that flight, and that's more than a bit disconcerting.

As Wikileaks founder Julian Assange told the South by Southwest audience last week, the NSA has turned the Internet on its head with its surveillance. "The Internet, the greatest tool of emancipation, had been co-opted and turned into the greatest form of state surveillance the world had ever seen," he said. And love him or hate him, it's hard to argue with that.

And yet if that surveillance is supposed to make us all safer, how is it possible for a plane to just disappear?

And should we believe the excuse that the government is simply trying to protect us from those that would do us harm, or should we begin to question highly intrusive data collection that seems unlikely to protect us after all?

Ron Miller is a freelance technology journalist and blogger. He is an editor at FierceContentManagement and a contributing editor at EContent Magazine.

Read more about privacy in Computerworld's Privacy Topic Center.

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