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Originally published March 18, 2014
“One if by land, two if by sea.” Every child in this country eventually comes across this phrase that shines as brightly in American history as the lantern light from the North Church tower that it refers to. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow immortalized Paul Revere’s Ride in his famous poem, but now Ed Snowden’s leaks about the NSA data collection methods and the debate that it sparked has also brought about an interesting series of attempts to revisit Paul Revere, the man, the ride and the events around it, and use them as a learning scenario for the present.
The gist involves reviewing what we know about Revere’s friends, relationships and group affiliations to reconstruct his social network and then use current social network analysis (SNA) techniques as part of a retroactive investigation. All this is done in the guise of a hypothetical enquiry being conducted by British “intelligence services” in 1772, a few years prior to the epic ride in 1775.
The most recent, and interesting, exercise I encountered was at the ACT-IAC Executive Leadership Conference in October.1 John Osterholz, former Department of Defense executive and now CSC’s Vice President of Cyber Operations, masterfully facilitated a “Talk Tank” case study in cybersecurity where he playacted the role of the British head of intelligence during that period, presenting the results of the investigation at an enactment of “Question Time” in a mock House of Commons.
The premise is that Paul Revere, a man of his time, was involved with many of the key players and organizations in Boston during those critical years and that if you had been able to capture “the metadata” – a specific jab at NSA’s metadata collection programs – related to his relationships and connections, it would have revealed the “colonists’ conspiracy against the Crown.”
Duke sociologist Kieran Healy seems to have started the current fad with a post on his blog last summer, Using Metadata to Find Paul Revere. He begins the post with the following:
“I have been asked by my superiors to give a brief demonstration of the surprising effectiveness of even the simplest techniques of the new-fangled Social Networke Analysis in the pursuit of those who would seek to undermine the liberty enjoyed by His Majesty’s subjects.”Using the work of Brandeis historian David Hackett Fischer, who had studied the historical event, as well as Paul Revere himself and his affiliations, in extensive detail, Healy developed some adjacency matrices based on the people Revere knew and the clubs or groups to which he belonged. (In a somewhat cute sideline, the mock report in the blog post credits “information gathered by our field agent, David Hackett Fischer,” whom it calls “…an expert and respected field Agent with a broad and deep knowledge of the colonies.”)
“We found 60 other riders who were out that same night, and it seemed that, far from detracting from Paul Revere, they actually made his role more important in that he was more than just a messenger, he was an organizer. He was a man who would get things done. He was a great joiner. He was an associating man. Everybody seemed to know him.”Of course, this whole exercise was motivated by the Snowden/NSA incident and debate. The many allusions in Healy’s post to the fact that “only metadata” was being used or that the presenter of the report to Parliament worked for the “Royal Security Administration (RSA)” were clearly intended to generate additional debate over that incident. Especially when you move to the next logical step, which Healy does not in his post, but Osterholz did at the ACT-IAC ELC: Now that we know that Paul Revere is a key player in a group of likely “conspirators and traitors,” what do we do about it?
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