The bread and butter of NSA chief Keith Alexander’s reign is the push to collect more and more data, saving essentially everything passing through the Internet, encrypted or not, according to recent reporting from Foreign Policy’s Shane Harris.
In Alexander’s stint, not only has the NSA’s budget blown up, but the agency has saved so much data that it has filled servers at the headquarters in Ft. Meade and built a new installation in Utah — all to save Internet and communications traffic.
There’s one big problem though: more data doesn’t necessarily translate into more security for the American people.
In fact, a flood of “intelligence” can make an analyst more confused, not less.
“Analysts routinely drown in data they can’t parse effectively,” said Joshua Foust, a former government intelligence analyst turned freelance defence journalist.
Foreign Policy some of the blunders of the new system:
“He had all these diagrams showing how this guy was connected to that guy and to that guy,” says a former NSA official who heard Alexander give briefings on the floor of the Information Dominance Center. “Some of my colleagues and I were sceptical. Later, we had a chance to review the information. It turns out that all [that] those guys were connected to were pizza shops.”
A retired military officer who worked with Alexander also describes a “massive network chart” that was purportedly about al Qaeda and its connections in Afghanistan. Upon closer examination, the retired officer says, “We found there was no data behind the links. No verifiable sources. We later found out that a quarter of the guys named on the chart had already been killed in Afghanistan.”
So while portions of the data yielded pizza shops and dead guys, real threats may have gone unnoticed. Typically, filling the proverbial airwaves with misinformation and disinformation is the function of rival governments or factions like Al Qaeda.
In this case, it appears the NSA has been doing as much to itself.
“They’re making themselves dysfunctional by collecting all of this data,” former NSA officer Willian Binney told The Daily Caller in June. “They’ve got so much collection capability but they can’t do everything. They’re probably getting something on the order of 80 per cent of what goes up on the network.”
Shane Harris writes how Alexander’s methods led to “hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people, places, and events [being] connected to each other” in something critics and “unimpressed” officials called the BAG — for Big Arse Graph.
“I don’t need this,” Harris reports that a senior CIA officer working on the agency’s drone program once told an NSA analyst who showed up with a big, nebulous graph. “I just need you to tell me whose arse to put a Hellfire missile on.”
Intelligence is all about coming up with something “actionable,” meaning authorities can take action based off conclusions analysts make by looking for trends in incoming information. Sometimes that action is preventative, sometimes its against a target.
For Alexander, the only answer for finding the action was “big data.”
From Foreign Policy:
At the turn of the century, Alexander took the big-data approach to counterterrorism. How well that method worked continues to be a matter of intense debate. Surely discrete interceptions of terrorists’ phone calls and emails have helped disrupt plots and prevent attacks. But huge volumes of data don’t always help catch potential plotters. Sometimes, the drive for more data just means capturing more ordinary people in the surveillance driftnet.
Gathering so much data not only may have made the NSA more sluggish (and expensive), it opened the agency up to years public criticism, ultimately Snowden’s epic leak, and quite possibly a set of massive reforms.
In all, this supposed strength has arguably become a part of NSA’s biggest weakness.
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