Information and investigations go hand in hand. Whatever you investigate, whether it’s insurance fraud; where that priceless, uninsured, artwork went after two rogues in police clothing strolled in late one night and took it from Boston’s Gardner Museum; or who the one-armed man really was; you need information, lots of information, to figure it out. But does information always help?
When you investigate insurance fraud, you need information to confirm coverage for a given claim; to determine whether the claim really happened the way the insured said; to establish whether the insured submitted a fraudulent and/or exaggerated claim. You take his recorded statement and examination under oath. You interview witnesses and get corroborating documents. You get … information.
Can you ever have too much information, though? Can an investigator, in effect, be buried in an avalanche of so many facts, have so much information, that she doesn’t know what she has and misses the answer? At least according to an article in Thursday’s Wall Street Journal, the answer is an emphatic yes.
The article, on the front page of the December 26, 2013 Wall Street Journal, is about the NSA. Yes, it mentions Edward Snowden, but it really isn’t about him. It features William Binney, a former NSA analyst who’s been retired for a dozen years. It really is about Mr. Binney’s claims that the NSA’s spying, the collection of all the metadata, the who-to’s and the where-froms, of all of the calls of all of the people the NSA is supposedly collecting, hurts more than helps. Not that it hurts me or you directly, but that it hurts the NSA itself and keeps it from completing its mission: tracking down the bad guys and preventing terrorist attacks.
The most telling line in the whole story is when it eloquently sums up Mr. Binney’s complaints about the NSA: “It knows so much, he says, that it can’t understand what it has.” And that, to put it mildly, can be a problem. Any votes on what would be worse: not being able to figure it out because you don’t know enough or because you know too much but don’t realize what you have? It seems like a tie: either way you lose; you still don’t have the answer.