Friday, 24 January 2014

Is the NSA dragnet an unconstitutional secret success?

I have a theory that the NSA, or their data, is actually successful at stopping many crimes. Perhaps not the Boston Bombers, but many others. The trouble is they have to keep it secret.
NSA mass surveillance: a failure or just foxing?
Billions of dollars, many years, project restarts and still failure? Perhaps not. A few tech people I know concur with my thoughts that it must be really hard to fail at connecting the dots with all the data the NSA collect. How can all of those nice graphs and pools be not useful? Private companies do just fine on profiling us with less data. You'd think there would have to be a successful pre-crime unit hidden away somewhere slurping up all that good data.  I've made a living at getting signal out of noise and though their problem is large, it should not be that difficult.

Q: So why would the agency paint a picture of failure?
A: They have to.

Why? That's easy, I think.  Let me meander through.

Professor Geoffery R Stone and now the US Government's Privacy Board agree the program is unconstitutional. That makes it illegal. We all wait for the Supreme Court to make the final adjudication.

Let's say the programme is successful.  It is used by many, including the FBI, DEA, to make connections. The agencies have been caught out handing over information and requiring the case when at trial not to use that information so the source or method may remain protected. Stories abound of PIs giving their mate at the FBI a call to get information on someone. Law enforcement agencies would be tremendously excited at having such data at their finger tips.  Imagine finding all the people within a radius of a crime from their cell tower records. Now find all the people within a radius of the use of a stolen credit card. Intersect.  Call up the person's address, track them via their cell, and then get the warrant to "confirm" the cell phone records. That would be pretty useful.

So just perhaps the data is very valuable indeed.

Now the agencies have a problem.  If it is declared unconstitutional and therefore illegal then any dependent legal cases would be subject to being revisited. What a mess that would be.

The prospect of terrorists, murderers, rapists, kiddy fiddlers, kidnappers, conmen, etc all walking the streets is indeed frightening. Perhaps the government is in a bind.  You can't say it is successful otherwise those cases are endangered.

If mass surveillance by the Ministry of Truth was truly useful, as I suspect it is, then I understand the dilemma. I'm not sure I'd like to be responsible for releasing a lot of criminals onto the street. I'd be looking to solve the constitutional problem but without letting the cat out of the bag that would free the criminals.

Maybe this is why the powers that be really want to keep the programme in place and make it pass constitutional muster.

Ex-NSA staffer, William Binney of ThinThread points out that the follow on project to his did spend years and waste billions before the project was killed. Perhaps the NSA and friends are truly incompetent, but I personally doubt they are really so incompetent that they have continued to fail up to 2014.

So has the NSA wasted billions and many years on a failed project?  Is there secret value in the project that we can't be told about?

If the programme has value then perhaps Obama's speech makes more sense than we are allowed to know. Shameful indeed, but perhaps they have no choice now that they have dug their own grave.

Not committing the constitutional crime in the first place is the trite solution. The mess is perhaps a lesson in that open government rather than secret courts is the best path.

If this mess is the case, how would you fix it?

If you get linked to this story by a government official then perhaps you know the answer ;-)

1 comment:

  1. Sad but amusing note from the Ethics page on

    Protect Whistleblowers: Often the best source of information about waste, fraud, and abuse in government is an existing government employee committed to public integrity and willing to speak out. Such acts of courage and patriotism, which can sometimes save lives and often save taxpayer dollars, should be encouraged rather than stifled. We need to empower federal employees as watchdogs of wrongdoing and partners in performance. Barack Obama will strengthen whistleblower laws to protect federal workers who expose waste, fraud, and abuse of authority in government. Obama will ensure that federal agencies expedite the process for reviewing whistleblower claims and whistleblowers have full access to courts and due process.