Picture 4 billion people. An almost impossible number for our brains to process, but try it anyway. Imagine you had orders to pick out one specific face from this crowd but you don’t have a clear picture of that face, only a few clues. Impossible of course, and yet this is somewhat analogous to the struggle that NSA analysts face.
The sheer amount of data, caused by the lack of barriers on what they can and cannot collect, is sometimes the very thing that overwhelms agents and impedes their work. Keeping tabs on 4 billion people (as NSA does) is a herculean feat. Add to that a healthy dose of government bureaucracy, media condemnation, an underpaid staff and you have the state of modern signals intelligence. Because of many of these underlying factors, valuing privacy can lead to protection of rights and security while a prioritization of national security often sacrifices both.
Today let’s focus on how a prioritization of national security above privacy worked out in NSA’s mass-data collection programs. This resolution spawned from a nationwide debate in the wake of Edward Snowden’s leaks about NSA’s programs. So obviously, these programs will play a large part in this year’s debate and it will pay to be well-versed in not just the principles but also the pragmatic impacts of data-collection methods. So here are 3 ways that NSA’s “collect it all” programs damage national security.
1. Data Deluge
Exactly how much data does NSA collect? And how does it influence national security? Along with GCHQ (Britain’s NSA) NSA buffers more than 21 petabytes a day. To put that in perspective, 1 petabyte is more than 4 times the size of all the data collected in the Library of Congress. 1 petabyte is enough to store the DNA of the entire population of the U.S. and then clone them, twice. NSA is collecting 21 of these data-monsters every day. How is any agency expected to gather sensible intelligence out of so much information?
As a 2002 Senate Select Intelligence Committee report stated, “Only a tiny fraction of the daily intercepts are actually ever reviewed by humans, and much of what is collected gets lost in the deluge of data.” The way to ensure security, in this case, is by prioritizing privacy. If NSA can’t intercept information without first getting a warrant, without first going through measures which protect privacy rights, then the amount of data being buffered declines sharply while effectiveness of agency does the opposite.
2. The Media (cue “Darth Vader Theme”)
In June of 2013 Edward Snowden began a series of leaks about NSA surveillance programs. The moment the very first document was published, a pandemic of blame-laying, fear-mongering, finger-pointing madness engulfed the nation. We the people were outraged by the more blatantly invasive programs and the free press fanned the flames of this newsworthy fury. The NSA—along with anyone even remotely involved—had its name dragged through the dirt and an enduring era of government distrust settled in to stay.
NSA will probably never be able to fully wipe off the tarnish of this scandal. It can expect budget cuts (from a Congress eager to distance themselves from the unpopular agency) and perhaps a drop in recruits (who wants to sign up to work for what is being described as an Orwellian “big brother”?). The trust of its people is one of the greatest assets of a government, no program is worth losing that support.
3. Wasted Money, Wasted Time
The real test is whether or not these programs protect us, but evidence shows that rather than stopping terrorism they only divert funds which could have been used otherwise. Despite all the hype, NSA’s telephone collection program yielded only one result: the conviction of a taxi driver who sent $8,500 to a Somali terrorist group, a group which does not even pose a direct threat to the US. There are many NSA programs which do a lot to protect our nation, but mass-data collection is not one of them.
The debate between privacy and national security is made difficult by fear. Anyone in their right mind would willingly sacrifice some privacy to save their life. You won’t win that debate. However if you can demonstrate that a system detached from respect for rights is less effective than one grounded in them, you can eliminate one of the most dangerous arguments of your opposition. These programs are simply not worth the cost of bloating the system and drowning our analysts with data. They are not worth the media inferno of fear-mongering and blame-laying which tarnishes NSA and casts distrust on our government. They are not worth the money that could be spent on more effective ways to protect us. Most importantly they are not worth the loss of our privacy.