To a crowd of about 60 students, members of the public and a live webstream audience, Alan Bersin, assistant secretary of international affairs and chief diplomatic officer for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, added his voice to the national conversation on data — big data — in the Ford School of Public Policy’s Josh Rosenthal Education Fund Lecture.

After being introduced by Public Policy Dean Susan Collins, Bersin said the theme of his talk, “Managing Global Borders: In Defense of Big Data,” is relevant considering recent controversial disclosures of classified information by former U.S. security contractor Edward Snowden, who revealed significant secrets about U.S. Internet espionage and domestic wiretapping.

While Bersin’s lecture, held in Annenberg Auditorium, focused on the need for big data as a solution to today’s issues of homeland security, he revealed his opinions on documents leaked by Snowden while answering a question from a student after the event.

“So here’s the problem: I understand that the Snowden disclosures have created a real issue in terms of, not just in terms of big data, though I hope I’ve at least started the debate in your minds if you’ve had question about how big data operates in the security realm … but this idea of spying on one another, espionage against countries, is actually more the rule than the exception,” Bersin said. “And we’re not the only ones who have done that, or who do that. Hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue.”

To protect the United States in this age of information, Bersin said DHLS must embrace big data.

“Big data is not only necessary, but it’s desirable in order to resolve these contradictions in managing global border flows,” Bersin said. “We actually are at a point where we cannot look at the old methods of resolving problems in quite the same way.”

During the talk, Bersin emphasized three paradigm shifts, pairing each with an example of an attempted attack on United States soil. First, Bersin challenged the traditional notion of borders.

Borders “are not just the juridical lines of jurisdiction that define one jurisdiction of a nation state from another … but rather in a global world they are a flow of goods, people, ideas,” Bersin said.

Citing the case of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab — the Nigerian man who attempted to detonate a bomb in his underwear during a Christmas Day flight to Detroit in 2009 — Bersin explained the DHS has learned to reconsider the flow of goods, by securing them before they cross the U.S. border.

“Big data,” Bersin said, was the solution, with the United States now tracking flight boarding and reservation information each time an individual gets on an airplane coming to the country, information which is maintained in databases at DHLS.

Bersin’s second proposal illustrated how expediting “lawful trade and travel” can occur even with increased security, referring to an incident in September 2010 — where packages containing explosives that were addressed to Chicago synagogues were discovered on UPS and FedEx planes originating in Yemen — as a defining moment for DHS.

High-risk items and people are “needles in haystacks,” Bersin explained, and instead of checking each piece of straw, the United States needs to “make the haystack smaller,” by separating low-risk traffic from high-risk goods or people.

Finally, Bersin posited that security and privacy are part of the same conversation. He cited how DHLS was able to identify and locate Faisal Shahzad — a naturalized American citizen from Pakistan who attempted to detonate a bomb in an abandoned car in Times Square in May 2010 — by tracing his cell phone number.

Bersin wrapped up his remarks by stating that the data collected may be big, but the data reviewed is minimal.

“The way in which we mine data now is based on algorithms and search devices that are very targeted,” Bersin said. “So, in fact, we can say that very few of the actual data points are touched by the scanning of big data, and the only matters that are examined are those in which there is an alert or a hit.”

Bersin’s lecture was part of the Josh Rosenthal Education Fund, which was created by the family of University alum Josh Rosenthal, who graduated from the Public Policy school in 1979 and died in the terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2011. Rosenthal pursued work in international finance after graduating, leading him to the position of senior vice president at Fiduciary Trust International, which was located in the World Trade Center.

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