Democracy Lab

Europe's Dirty Little Secret

Europe prides itself on its democratic credentials. So why is a tiny band of underdog dissidents having such a hard time fighting the continent’s last dictator?

Tom Stoppard, the celebrated playwright, is hailed as a "bard for our times," who has been showered with awards for his work. Yet Sir Tom (Queen Elizabeth II knighted the Czech émigré in 1997) cannot mask the catch in his throat when he tells me about a review the New York Times published on January 17, 2013. The reviewer, Ben Brantley described Minsk 2011 as "beautiful and brutal" and enthused about its "mythic" quality.

"You couldn't hope for a better review, could you?"

Sir Tom is basking in reflected glory. The play is not his, but the work of the Belarus Free Theater, a company that he has long championed that was banned from performing in their homeland because of their daring criticism of Aleksander Lukashenko, the Belarusian autocrat.

Stoppard has also been helping another Lukashenko foe, Andrei Sannikov. The former deputy foreign minister was tortured and imprisoned for standing against Lukashenko in the December 2010 presidential elections. His show trial two years ago came to a dramatic standstill when a letter of support by Tom Stoppard was read out. Sannikov attributes his release (after 16 months in prison) to the playwright's intervention.

But despite their victory, neither the dissident nor playwright is capable of really opposing Aleksander Lukashenko. The man known as Europe's last dictator has held his country in an iron grip for 19 years. Under him, Belarus, a country the size of Kansas, with 9.5 million inhabitants, has earned one of the worst records on political rights and civil liberties in the world. The regime has carefully orchestrated every election and national referendum since 1994.

The first line of the national anthem may proclaim, "We are Belarusians, a peaceful people," but a secret death squad has been in operation since the late 1990s. A dozen members of the opposition have disappeared and a number of activists are thought to be political prisoners.

"Lukashenko's regime has dealt with the opposition by literally murdering a small number of people," Stoppard tells me. The Belarusian KGB (Lukashenko has clung to the old Soviet name and model for his secret police) keeps an eye on their fellow citizens. New laws make that all the easier, especially online, with the government investing heavily in the development of software to track Internet users i.e. 55 percent of Belarusians over the age of 15. Lukashenko has also been orchestrating cyber attacks against activists. On December 19, 2010, the day of the last presidential elections, opposition sites were blocked. By 2 p.m. local time, access to mail and Facebook were blocked, and by 4 p.m. almost all independent websites were inaccessible.

Belarus is Europe's dirty little secret. Its existence should fill Europeans with shame and the European Union with guilt. The institution that likes to grandstand about a common moral purpose and a sterling record on rights has done little to clean up the mess on its doorstep. Belarus may not be a member, but it routinely deals with the European Union -- which actually tends to put its weaknesses on vivid display.

Andrei Sannikov certainly thinks so. Exiled to a town just outside London, he feels at once baffled and frustrated by Western (and in particular European) indifference to his compatriots' plight. Self-interest should prompt them to action, he argues: "Westerners should remember that what happens in Belarus affects them. Lukashenko has established ties with other rogue states around the world, and supplied terrorists with arms. Qaddafi, Iran, Sudan, even Saddam Hussein: Lukashenko has sold arms to them all."

Self-interest does feature in the west's dealings with Belarus. But not in the way Sannikov hopes. E.U. countries like the Netherlands and Latvia buy cheap oil products from Belarusian refineries. In the first six months of last year alone, Lukashenko earned $8 billion from the trade.

The surveillance equipment he uses to spy on his citizens is made by Swedish telecommunication giant Ericsson -- though when confronted by Index on Censorship, Ericsson explained that this was because the company had sold its equipment to Turkcell, a Turkish cell phone operator, which in turn had sold their wares to Belarus.

Britain, meanwhile, last year sold to Belarus some £3 million worth of arms. The government-sponsored Joint Arms Control Implementation Group has invited Belarusian officers later this year to Britain, where they are supposed to receive training in "managing" Belarus's weapons stockpile.

Is it any wonder the Belarusian opposition thinks Europe is propping up the "last dictatorship?" Sannikov persists with his mission: to oust Aleksandr Lukashenko. The West finds it convenient to portray Belarus as a "basket case," he says indignantly, because depicting Belarusians as "passive and brutalized" makes it easier for Europeans to wash their hands of their troublesome neighbors.

It's difficult, despite Sannikov's patriotic fervor, not to view his homeland as a hopeless cause. Belarus has long been a geographical expression, but it only gained independence in 1918 -- and even then for only a few months. Sandwiched between Europe and Russia, Belarus was the center of the Holocaust, according to Timothy Snyder, and the "route number one" for the Nazis' invasion of the USSR in 1941.

One of the founding republics of the old Soviet Union, Belarus played an instrumental part in the USSR's dissolution. But it has never managed to emerge from the Kremlin's orbit. Today it remains sorely dependent on Russia for its energy supplies. A telling sign of Belarusians' weak sense of identity is that most citizens speak Russian rather than Belarusian at home. As for their leader, Lukashenko uses Russian for all official functions -- though the wily dictator may do this to please Vladimir Putin. The two leaders have had their run-ins, though. Only last year, Russian television broadcast an unflattering four part series titled The Godfather, as it dubbed the Belarusian dictator.

The Mafia soubriquet fits only to a point. Lukashenko often plays the clown, Berlusconi-style. When Guido Westerwelle, Germany's gay foreign minister, warned him recently that the European Union would recall their ambassadors from Minsk in protest at his dictatorial regime, Lukashenko replied that "I'd rather be a dictator than gay." Such reckless behavior stems from Lukashenko's knowledge that the West wants to keep Belarus on the side. He ably plays Russia against the European Union and is not above using political prisoners as bargaining chips -- but only, Sannikov claims, because Europe allows it. "They enter into secret negotiations and promise Lukashenko something in return.... It's tit for tat, a loan for a prisoner." (E.U. bilateral assistance to Belarus consisted of 28.50 million Euros in 2012-2013, mostly in the area of environment, education and cross-border cooperation.)

Despite the bleak history of his homeland and the cunning ploys of its dictator, Andrei Sannikov has no time for those who claim Belarusians are not interested in democracy. For Sannikov, democracy is about aspiration, not habit. "When a group of people gather across a kitchen table, or over the factory assembly line, or in a youth group, and talk of making changes -- that is civil society. It exists in Belarus as in North Korea and China. It simply isn't allowed to have legal channels in these countries."

Natalia Kaliada, who with her husband Nikolai Khalezin founded the Free Belarus Theatre, was arrested at the 2010 election protests. She recalls being pulled up into a paddy wagon. "It was one of those specially built ones, to fit 70-80 people. I was shouting, and the police shouted back ‘face the floor, don't look around!' But then I remembered I'd been told that when you are taken, you must immediately collect all the names of those around you, then text them to someone abroad before they take your phone away. I managed to send many names ... but then the police started shouting that they would rape us women and take us into a wood and shoot us."

Kaliada was taken instead to a detention center already full of women protesters. She was released 48 hours later, and escaped through Russia to London. Her family has joined her there.

Like Sannikov, she believes that "so many [Belarusians] have experienced first-hand the brutality of the authorities, they will realize they cannot live with this regime." They will, she firmly believes, turn to the opposition. "Lukashenko controls the media, but there were 30,000 witnesses that day."

Sannikov believes that those 30,000 protesters will soon swell into 300,000. He points to the latest polls, which show that although a third of citizens support Lukashenko, 15 percent now side with the opposition.

He believes he can stoke the fires of democracy from abroad -- with a little help from his friends in the west. His confidence lies in part in Charter'97, the opposition website he helped found. "It can be populist and sensationalist," a former diplomat explains, "but the website is great propaganda. Not only critics of the regime but an awful lot of high-up civil servants and government ministers are reading the site."

Sometimes, Sannikov points out, grinning, "regime officials quote from the website... even on air. The internet means we can work abroad but reach those inside."

But Charter'97 alone will not transform Belarus. Sannikov calls on the West to help him and the opposition by adopting tougher sanctions. The recalling of ambassadors was one step. The European Commission also has drawn up a list of "undesirables" who may not cross its frontiers, and whose assets in the E.U. will be frozen.

Marietje Schaake, a Dutch MEP who has long campaigned for a more robust E.U. stance in regards to Belarus, admits that none of the European Union's "restrictive measures have had much impact on the policies or actions of the Belarusian government. On April 1, 2013, their foreign minister [Vladimir Makei] said his country was ready for dialogue with the E.U. -- but without any pressure or threat of sanctions."

When targeted sanctions, and his own heroic opposition, fail to dent a dictatorship, what can Sannikov do?

Exchange students, scout trips, cycle tours, and spa tourism: Greater exchange with the West, at every level of society, will make the Belarusian people "see for themselves freedom of speech, of the press, the rule of law. They won't accept their oppression anymore."

Sannikov wants to persuade the European Union to change their visa requirements: Traveling abroad is allowed -- but to date the West has made it difficult, as obtaining a visa is time-consuming and expensive. This may change, according to Marietje Schaake. The European Union wants to start negotiations on visa facilitation and readmission agreements for the public at large. The Belarusian government has not yet replied to the offer, and Schaake says this speaks volumes for Lukashenko's desire for isolation. "After all," she argues, "the dogma and doctrine is easily challenged when people experience a higher quality of life abroad."

While Lukashenko mulls over his options -- can he afford to tweak Europe's nose once more? Will Vladimir repudiate him if he doesn't? -- Sannikov believes his own role is to keep Belarus on the international agenda.

It will be difficult, Tom Stoppard warns: "What are a handful of murders in comparison to the massacres we see daily in Syria? What are a dozen disappeared in comparison to the scenes of destruction of the Arab Spring?" He pauses. "But there is one reason why Belarus should matter to us: This is Europe."

VIKTOR DRACHEV/AFP/GettyImages

National Security

Evil in a Haystack

How do you find a terrorist hidden in millions of gigabytes of metadata?

Over the last week, critics and defenders of the National Security Agency have heatedly debated the merits of metadata -- information about the phone activity of millions of Americans that was given to the government via a secret court order.

The information collected includes records of every call placed on the Verizon communications network (and, it appears, every other U.S. phone carrier) including times, dates, lengths of calls, and the phone numbers of the participants, but not the names associated with the accounts.

For some, the collection of these data represent a grave violation of the privacy of American citizens. For others, the privacy issue is negligible, as long as it helps keep us safe from terrorism.

There are indeed privacy issues at play here, but they aren't necessarily the obvious ones. In order to put the most important questions into context, consider the following illustration of a metadata analysis using sample data derived from a real social network. The sample data isn't derived from telephone records, but it's close enough to give a sense of the analysis challenges and privacy issues in play.

While this example is relevant to what happens behind the NSA's closed doors, it is not in any way intended to be a literal or accurate portrayal. While every effort was made to keep this example close to reality, a wide number of hypotheticals and classified procedures ensure the reality is somewhat different.

We start with a classic scenario. U.S. intelligence officials have captured an al Qaeda operative and obtained the phone number of an al Qaeda fundraiser in Yemen.

You are an analyst for a fictionalized version of the NSA, and you have been authorized to search through metadata in order to expose the fundraiser's network, armed with only a single phone number as a starting point.

The first step is refreshingly simple: You type the fundraiser's phone number into the metadata analysis software and click OK.

In our example data, the result is a list of 79 phone numbers that were involved in an incoming or outgoing call with the fundraiser's phone within the last 30 days. The fundraiser is a covert operator and this phone is dedicated to covert activities, so almost anyone who calls the number is a high-value target right out of the gate.

Using the metadata, we can weight each phone number according to the number of calls it was involved in, the lengths of the calls, the location of the other participant, and the time of day the call was placed. Your NSA training manual claims these qualities help indicate the threat level of each participant. Your workstation renders these data as a graph. Each dot represents a phone number, and the size of the dot is bigger when the number scores higher on the "threat" calculus.

This is already a significant intelligence windfall, and you've barely been at this for five minutes. But you can go back to the metadata and query which of these 79 people have been talking to each other in addition to talking to the fundraiser.

Using a common mathematical calculation, each phone number can be weighted based on how it provides links to other numbers in the network (the math is similar to the formula Google uses to rank pages). High-scoring accounts are almost always extremely significant to a social network (although that's not the same thing as being an important terrorist).

Your search reveals that many of these people are talking to each other and not just to the fundraiser. That suggests they may be coordinating their activities. It might suggest that their conversations pertain to al Qaeda business, especially if you factor the criteria from the first graph (the graph above only reflects network position).

What if you looked at all of the incoming and outgoing calls for all 79 of the phone numbers you have examined so far? This is where the rubber hits the Big Data road.

The reason we differentiate Big Data from plain old data is that it exposes insights you can't extract simply by reading and understanding the information itself, in this case a very long list of phone calls. When you collect a lot of data, you can do mathematical analysis to highlight important relationships that would be invisible to manual inspection.

You add in the new numbers, now two degrees of separation from the original fundraiser, including all the calls made and received by each of the 79 phone numbers on the list. Using the sample data, this results in a new network of 47,923 phone numbers, more than 67,535 relationships, and hundreds of thousands of calls, each with lengths, times, and locations.

You've been hired by the NSA, so odds are you're pretty good at math. But the software you're using doesn't necessarily require that you understand the principles. You click OK and it gives you results based on mathematical formulas that have been described to you in very general terms.

In this case, it gives you a set of scores to rank the importance of each account. These scores suggest you can cut the size of the dataset to between 1,200 and 22,500 phone numbers that are statistically significant.

This range is wide, but it's not arbitrary. In this particular case, the set of 22,500 numbers is most mathematically advantageous. You can cut the number of accounts by more than half, but only reduce the scores for importance by about 7.5 percent. That is the best bargain you can get with this particular dataset. (This is an overly simplified explanation of what happens in this transaction, but it roughly conveys the point.)

The more you cut, the worse the bargain gets. If you reduce the set to 1,200 phone numbers, you've cut the number of accounts by 97.5 percent, but you've cut the sum total importance of those accounts by 93 percent. You're still getting a discount, but it's not nearly as attractive.

And no matter how you slice it, we're still talking about a lot of accounts. So you select some additional analysis options from a menu and click OK. The software quickly identifies a number of different segments in the data, which it illustrates using colorful visual graphs.


The graph on top shows groupings of phone numbers based who calls whom most frequently, separating numbers based on their degrees of separation from each other. (Although all the numbers are two degrees of separation from the fundraiser, that doesn't mean they're all two degrees from each other.) These are large groupings, ranging from hundreds of accounts to thousands. The odds are pretty good that if you examined the content of each group individually, you would find some kind of thematic connection, possibly based around where the people who own the phone numbers live or what organizations they support. But until you look at the names of the people, where they live, and maybe the content of calls, you won't know exactly what those themes are.

The lower graph uses colorful dots to highlight "cliques," which are smaller groupings ranging from a handful to a couple dozen accounts each, fewer than 400 accounts in total. These are the most concentrated and active relationships -- very small groups that likely share some kind of direct relationship -- and you can tell (to a certain extent) which of these cliques are most connected to the original fundraiser.

You have access to half a dozen variations on this kind of analysis, each yielding different lists of potential targets, some very small and others quite large.

You could continue to widen the net -- for instance traveling another degree of separation from the fundraiser -- but then you'd be analyzing millions of accounts and facing ever-more challenging complexities. So you call a halt.

It's time to decide.

Which of these accounts should be associated with names and addresses and other data? Which accounts merit additional investigation and more intrusive scrutiny? (This might include cross-referencing the numbers against other databases, referring them to the FBI or CIA for additional investigation, or asking a supervisor to initiate the process of wiretapping the phones and listening to what the subscriber is talking about.)

You can recommend one of the following lists of numbers for additional investigation or data collection:

1. The 79 phone numbers that called the original number;

2. The 24 most important members of the 79-number set;

3. The 47,923 phone numbers that are two degrees of separation from the original;

4. The 1,250 phone numbers (out of 47,923) with the top scores for importance (but representing only 7 percent of the sum total of all importance scores in the network);

5. The 4,500 top-scoring phone numbers, representing 21.5 percent of the total;

6. The 22,500 top-scoring phone numbers, representing 92.5 percent of the total;

7. One of the color groups identified by your analysis, which range in size from hundreds to thousands of accounts (but which color to choose?);

8. One of the cliques, which limits the set to just a few hundred accounts showing high levels of activity, but incurs the risk of missing an al Qaeda operative or cell that deliberately keeps communication to a minimum.

What will you do?

You've already "touched" tens of thousands of customer records, including many belonging to American citizens. Most of those phone records have been used only to perform the necessary math to identify smaller groups that will receive more intrusive scrutiny. So far, you haven't yet even looked at an actual phone number.

But phone numbers are extremely structured data, if you do choose to look. The list of 47,923 includes thousands of phone numbers for accounts based in the United States. Thanks to the area codes, exchanges, and cell phone location metadata, you can easily click a button and get a list showing which towns are associated with the people in the whole set or any of the smaller sets.

The NSA says it has "minimization" procedures to prevent unnecessary intrusions on the privacy of American citizens, presumably by blocking the analyst's access to information on U.S. phone numbers to a greater or lesser degree. But if the list reveals a dozen well-connected phone numbers based in, say, Minneapolis, isn't that exactly the kind of thing you're supposed to detect? When does the relevance of a U.S. account outweigh privacy concerns? If it's part of the 79 original accounts, or the 22,500 most mathematically relevant?

This leads to another critical question: How much should you trust this math? You have access to multiple types of analysis; each one has strengths and weaknesses. Which ones are a good fit for this data? Are any of them?

Network analysis has proven reliability in discovering nodes that are important... to the structure of networks. But that's not necessarily the same thing as being an important or dangerous terrorist. The wider you cast the net, the greater the chance you will find yourself analyzing a social network instead of a terrorist network.

One of the most important parts of your analysis uses the duration and time of day of a call in an effort to determine which calls are more likely linked to terrorist operations. Do these criteria reflect historical trends or are they constantly updated? More importantly, have they been tested for accuracy?

Is there any way to conduct a credible test other than by saying "privacy be damned" and collecting the call content of all the people in a large sample network so you can compare the actual content of the network to your predictions? Can you trust this kind of analysis if it isn't periodically tested?

There are no clear objective answers to most of these questions. But there are factors that influence how the government chooses to answer them.

For one thing, U.S. policies are still informed by the idea that all terrorist attacks should be interdicted. A frequently expressed corollary to that premise states that, while tradeoffs against civil liberties might be bad in the abstract, those issues are meaningless when faced with a ticking time bomb.

But we don't know how many "imminent" terrorist attacks have been prevented by these techniques. Does anyone act on your analysis in real time?

Privacy aside, it's also important to keep your data focused and avoid bloat. When you start off with one seed account (the fundraiser), it's possible that investigating fewer data -- in this case the 79 accounts that contacted the fundraiser -- will produce a better result in terms of both civil liberties and counterterrorism.

But if you have multiple seeds -- say the fundraiser and his banker and four couriers they work with -- that opens the door to much stronger mathematical analysis, at the expense of exponentially increasing the number of accounts you need to analyze.

Analysts are understandably greedy for data even when they don't necessarily need it, and much of government is filled with people for whom Big Data might as well be magic. The inevitable result is that when presidents, lawmakers, and judges are told in vague but enthusiastic terms that more data equals less terrorism, they might be inclined to write blank checks.

But while these matters are complex, they are not impenetrable. Once we get beyond the obvious and not-insignificant issue of whether the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act was intended to authorize such broad collection, there are important questions that must be addressed if we're going to continue to use these techniques -- which we almost certainly are.

1. How much contact can an analyst have with a U.S. person's data before it becomes a troublesome violation of privacy? Is it a violation to load a phone record into a graph if the analyst never looks at it individually? Is it a violation to look at the number individually if you don't associate a name? Is it a violation to associate a name if you never take any additional investigative steps?

2. Metadata analysis is more accurate when the data is more complete. Should minimization practices filter metadata on American citizens out of the analysis altogether? What if that means targeting might be less accurate and, ironically, more likely to designate innocent people for more intrusive scrutiny?

3. What percentage of phone traffic to targeted numbers travels only on foreign carriers? Does the absence of those data skew analysis and possibly overemphasize the scoring of phone numbers used by American citizens?

4. On a fundamental level, are we willing to trust mathematical formulas and behavioral models to decide who should receive intrusive scrutiny?

5. Metadata analysis rarely deals in certainties; it almost always produces probabilities. What probability of evil intent should these models demonstrate before the government uses them to help justify a phone tap, or a house search, or a drone strike? 90 percent? 60 percent? Should we allow incremental collection of slightly more intrusive data if they can clarify a marginal case?

6. Have we tested our analytical math to see how accurate its predictions are relative to the actual content of calls? If so, how were these tests done? If not, are we willing to trust these models based on their success in other fields, or do they need to be tested specifically for counterterrorism?

7. If we believe the models do need to be tested for accuracy, are we willing to endure the privacy violations such tests would almost certainly entail? Will more accurate models lead to better privacy in the long run by reducing the number of innocent people subjected to more intrusive scrutiny?

8. Are we willing to trust the government to hold this data? Although the government says this data is currently focused on foreign counterterrorism, do we believe the president might not order the NSA to access metadata in the wake of a terrorist attack of domestic origin?

9. On a related note, what happens if the origin of an attack isn't immediately clear, as in the Boston Marathon bombing? Should the NSA immediately begin a broad analysis of metadata and continue until it's clear where the responsibility lies?

10. If we were to allow the use of this technology in domestic terrorism investigations, during a crisis or otherwise, how do we avoid collecting information on legal political dissent? For instance, targeting anarchists might inadvertently produce a list of influential leaders in the Occupy movement. Targeting militia groups might create a database of gun sellers. When you plunge into a huge dataset, you sometimes get insights you didn't expect.

None of these questions is simple or easy. None of them lends itself to polling or punditry. They aren't easy to discuss in a reasoned and accurate manner during a two-minute TV hit or on the floor of the House of Representatives.

Yet they cut straight to the intersection of Big Data, counterterrorism, and the U.S. legal system, including constitutional protections against unreasonable searches. The founding fathers couldn't have imagined that one day a machine using advanced math might provide an argument in favor of a search warrant.

Our technological capabilities far exceed the wildest dreams of the authors of the Fourth Amendment, and neither the courts nor our laws have kept pace.

If America can't muster the energy to tackle these questions thoughtfully, we are likely to lose control of the outcome and become less free, less secure, or both.

And no one will be able to explain why.

PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images