The hits just keep on coming. Each new leak or revelation fills in more details on the audacious breadth of the NSA's surveillance activities. Previous statements from intelligence agencies declared that surveillance efforts covered only "two hops" from suspected terrorists. This meant that the agencies watched who these suspects communicated with (the first hop) and who those people communicated with (the second hop).
The two-hop limit is still broad enough to drop the surveillance dragnet over thousands of people who weren't specifically targeted. It's a perverse form of "guilt by association" that opens up people twice removed from the original targets to further surveillance efforts.
Now, it has come to light that these agencies go even further.
Chris Inglis, the agency's deputy director, was one of several government representatives—including from the FBI and the office of the Director of National Intelligence—testifying before the House Judiciary Committee this morning. Most of the testimony largely echoed previous testimony by the agencies on the topic of the government's surveillance, including a retread of the same offered examples for how the Patriot Act and Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act had stopped terror events.
But Inglis' statement was new. Analysts look "two or three hops" from terror suspects when evaluating terror activity, Inglis revealed.
This third "hop," delivered as an "aside" during testimony, effectively throws a dragnet over a majority of the world's population.
For a sense of scale, researchers at the University of Milan found in 2011 that everyone on the Internet was, on average, 4.74 steps away from anyone else.
In addition to marveling at the fact that these agencies apparently see nothing wrong with tracking millions of non-terrorists, one has to wonder what they sought to gain by clouding their own "search results" with millions of useless data points. This certainly falls under the NSA mantra of "collect it all
," an attitude that indicates the agency collects this info because it can
, not because it needs it. This also provides it with a way to "target" American citizens without actually targeting them, something that would run afoul of Section 702. Each additional "hop" exponentially increases the chance of including American citizens.
It also calls into (further) question claims that harvesting vast amounts of data is preventing terrorist attacks
and making our country safer. Trolling a sea of data looking for bites isn't an effective way to fight anything
, much less terrorism, something that is nebulous in both definition and aim. Asking the database "questions"
and "connecting the dots"
is significantly more difficult when the database is filled with tons of useless info and the number of "dots" has increased exponentially.
Inglis failed to explain why this additional hop was necessary, but that sort of casual omission may not be an option much longer. It looks as if these hearings are turning much more adversarial. A few legislators fired off some choice words in the direction of Inglis and the agency.
Ranking Minority Member John Conyers (MI): "You've already violated the law in my opinion."
Rep. Jerry Nadler (NY): "I believe it's totally unprecedented and goes way beyond the statute."
Rep. Ted Poe (TX): "Do you see a national security exemption in the Fourth Amendment? … We've abused the concept of rights in the name of national security."
It's heartening to see a few representatives stepping up to declare the NSA's actions reprehensible. Unfortunately, this conversation should have occurred a long time ago. What's been revealed is likely the tip of the iceberg, and while the agencies haven't been truthful with their overseers in Congress, the fact is that there were several opportunities for legislators to curb the overreach of the NSA and other intelligence agencies.
What's even more disappointing is that the current administration has made very few critical statements of these agencies and their policies, preferring to make small noises about "balance" and "debate."
It, too, had an opportunity to roll this back, but instead chose to extend and expand the policies put in place by the previous administration.
The NSA is currently two "hops" away from effectively surveilling the entire world -- and that's only if we believe its latest claim. The NSA didn't get to this point alone. It had plenty of help, some tacit and some active, in its steady march towards omniscience.