The data detectives

This morning’s Observer column.

On Friday 20 July, Obama had 18 million followers, compared with Romney’s 690,000. But over the next few days @MittRomney mysteriously acquired 100,000 new followers.

This immediately attracted the attention of those who track these things. “Is Mitt Romney buying Twitter followers?” asked one prominent observer. Others noted that many of the new “followers” looked dodgy. Five of them shared the same profile photo, for example. Obama supporters gleefully pointed out that buying followers would be absolutely typical of a candidate who was fabulously rich but clueless about cyberspace. Sceptics wondered if the spike was actually orchestrated by Romney’s opponents as a way of discrediting him. Was the spike the product of a Twitter “spambot” – a software robot that creates fake accounts? And so on.

But this was all conjecture and speculation. Everybody was suspicious but nobody knew anything. Then a couple of students at the Oxford Internet Institute asked themselves a question: what’s the probability that Romney’s new followers are genuine? Their account of the research makes fascinating reading…

Quote of the Day

“We all know what needs to be done. We just don’t know how to be re-elected when we’ve done it”.

Jean-Claude Juncker, Prime Minister of Luxembourg and president of the Euro group of prime ministers, quoted in the Economist, Nov 17, 2012.

Sex and the National Security State

Lovely NYTimes column by Roger Cohen.

What Obama did not say, of course not, is that Petraeus and Allen (and Kelley and Broadwell) are all in some measure victims of the Surveillance State the president inherited from George W. Bush and has spent the past four years consolidating and expanding. Among other things, Obama has tried to amend the Patriot Act to give the F.B.I. ever greater intrusive powers. In 2010, The Washington Post reported that every day the National Security Agency intercepts and stores “1.7 billion e-mails, phone calls and other types of communication.”

Obama declared in 2009 that we “cannot keep this country safe unless we enlist the power of our most fundamental values.” His success in fulfilling that pledge has been distinctly mixed. The drone-led battle against terrorism takes place in a world largely beyond due process and the rule of law. And the privacy of Americans is intruded upon daily in ways that flout the Fourth Amendment.

Now his top generals, older men drawn to younger women, have ended up caught in the invasive web. The irony of a security apparatus turning on its security chiefs is impossible to escape.

The president says national security has not been compromised in any way. So what, pray, is the issue here? Allen’s flirtatious banter with Kelley? The ultimate failure of Petraeus the perfectionist to meet his own impossibly high standards? Or rather the deeply troubling fact that this F.B.I. inquiry digging into in-boxes was possible in the first place?