Future Tense, one of the revolving features on this page, presents stories and
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DOI: 10.1145/2001269.2001296 Shumeet Baluja
a Person of influence
Inferred connections map our past and predict our future.
WITHIN MINUTES oF arriving at NSA
headquarters, I had already aggravated my host, Lydia. It started the moment I offered to get her a soft drink
only to realize I had no money to pay
for hers—or even for my own. As she
grudgingly paid for both, her irritation
only grew as I explained I was so accustomed to the free food and drinks
at Ubatoo I didn’t realize some offices
were still so antiquated in their treatment of employees.
Ubatoo.com, my former employer,
epitomized Silicon Valley. Early on, it
set the standard for perks and eccen-tricities and had grown to be synonymous with the Internet itself. Write an
email message, update your personal
status, buy something online, watch a
video, upload a picture, search a secret
desire you’ve never shared with anyone—Ubatoo made it all possible.
Today’s meeting was intended as a
brainstorming session on deploying
Ubatoo’s Web-ranking algorithms to
help NSA rank “suspects” on its ever-growing watch lists. Lydia, however,
was in pure selling mode.
“We live in a connected world,” she
said, the moment Doug, her boss, was
seated. “It’s not just about the people
you say are your ‘friends’ but about all
the connections we infer.”
An ode to minimalism, her first slide
was a white screen with two tiny dots
in the center. “One is you, Doug,” she
said. “The other is your daughter, Deir-
dre. When you make a phone call to
her, we connect the dots.” She tapped a
key and a connecting line materialized.
“We know you write her an email
message every day.” The connection
between them grew thicker.
“Deirdre calls and texts her boyfriend, Josh, right?” A dot for Josh
emerged, already connected to Deirdre. “He’s taking a course.” A line between Josh’s dot and his professor, Dr.
“And this Kione teaches political
media by examining half a dozen Web
sites, one of which is a known extremist breeding ground.” Six new dots
popped up, one for each site, five black,
one red, indicating “under surveillance,” all connected back to Kione.
“Now it’s just a game of ‘connect
the dots’; it’s unlikely he supports the
extremist groups he’s encountered,
but he might have mentioned them
in class.” Like a slow drip across the
screen, the red seeped outward from
the lone red dot, flowing through all
the connections it touched. “It’s possi-
ble Josh talked about it with Deirdre.”
The red continued its crawl through
the thick and thin connections be-
tween other dots along the way, getting
fainter with each one. “It’s unlikely
she would talk about it with you. Un-
likely, but not impossible.” The red
had almost disappeared by the time it
reached back to Doug’s no-longer pris-
tine black dot.