Five Reasons the NSA’s Datamining Isn’t A Big Deal
- Jonathan Nathan
- On June 12, 2013
In the wake of Edward Snowden’s “revelation” that the National Security Agency is doing exactly what everyone already knew it was doing–to wit, compiling phone and internet metadata on millions of Americans–there have been a lot of questions and concerns raised regarding privacy, liberty, security, etc. What doesn’t seem to be happening as much is an actual detached look at what the NSA program is and what it does and under what authority it does this. That’s probably because taking such a look at the program would show that it’s really not a big deal, and “false alarm, not really a big deal” doesn’t sell newspapers. So here are the five reasons that the NSA’s datamining program is not a big deal.
1) It’s been going on for awhile and nothing bad happened.
Remember the Patriot Act? Here, check out some information on it. Wait, whoops, that was a link to a description of an underrated episode of the classic Justice League Unlimited entitled “Patriot Act.” Here, this is a link to some info on the actual Patriot Act. Go ahead, read it. I’ll wait.
So as you know, the Patriot Act has been around forever. And for at least that long, the NSA has been engaged in metadatamining. And what awful, terrible thing happened? Absolutely nothing. Nobody was arrested for saying “Fuck George W. Bush.” Nobody was arrested for calling Obama a Nazi. That’s not what they use it for. They use a problem described as “knowledge discovery in database,” or K.D.D., which, as Kurt Eichenwald explains in Vanity Fair, “cleans, selects, integrates, and analyzes the data.”
I’ve written about the NSA program before, and I made the joke that if you called Osama bin Laden, that would be a red flag. And that’s actually pretty close to the truth. One of the major elements of K.D.D. was matching up phone metadata to what the agency refers to as “dirty numbers”–phone numbers linked to terrorists around the world. According to Eichenwald, one of the first calls to a dirty number that the program unearthed was placed from the West Wing of the White House during the Bush presidency, although investigators eventually concluded that it was a fluke.
2) They don’t listen to your phone calls and they don’t read your emails.
The NSA is not listening to your phone calls, and it’s not reading your emails, unless you are placing calls to 1-800-ALQAEDA and sending emails to [email protected] (Imaginary subject line: “Trouble with my backpack bomb detonator.”) The program does not give them the authority to do that. They are literally just looking at metadata–information about information. They have no more access to your private phone conversations and email threads than do your phone companies, email hosts, and internet service providers. Hell, internet advertisers and marketers probably know more about you than the government does. Or they think they do; for some reason I keep getting Facebook ads for gay dating websites. So either Facebook and its advertisers know me way better than I know myself, or their algorithms are a little off.
3) The vast majority of the information never even gets looked at by a human being..
Back to K.D.D. for a moment. K.D.D., as mentioned above, is the program that matches up the numbers and emails in your metadata to known terrorists, but that’s not all it does. The rest of the K.D.D. program basically involves running the data through complex algorithms which match up certain telecommunications behavior with the patterns of behavior of known terrorist-linked operatives. So unless K.D.D. gives them a reason to do so, the NSA is never going to look at your information. It’s just going to sit there, collecting digital dust.
4) They are not allowed to surveil you for no reason, or without a court order.
And if K.D.D. doesn’t flag you, guess what? The NSA can’t check out your private stuff. They can’t even look at your metadata. Without K.D.D. picking you up or a court order saying they can scrutinize you, the NSA has no authority to do anything. So it’s okay, neckbeard Redditors: the government still doesn’t know about your creepy fetish porn collection.
5) Pretty much everything Edward Snowden said about it was a lie.
Remember that garbage about how if he had a personal email address he could snoop through all your shit? Okay, it might technically be true that he could do that from his desk at the office, but what isn’t true is that he would have had the authority to do so. As Eichenwald reports, even during the Bush Administration, NSA officials were very sensitive to the potential Fourth Amendment implications of the datamining program. That’s why they built in some very heavy legal safeguards. You can decide not to believe that those safeguards work, but if that’s the way you’re going to choose to live, just go ahead and put on your tinfoil hat and wait for the Jewish lizard people to come take your guns.
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