Shallow Surveillance Efforts Like PRISM Will Only Catch The 'Stupidest, Lowest-Ranking Of Terrorists'

from the better-watch-out-for-the-skin-deep dept

Government officials keep assuring the public that these surveillance programs are in place to track terrorists and prevent further violent activity aimed at our nation. But much of what the government actually tracks and collects is nearly useless. It’s aimed at the sort of platforms and communication devices used by the general public — the sort of people who make use of the “top level” because they actually have nothing to hide.

Leonid Bershidsky argues that casting the net wide, but only to a shallow depth, won’t actually “catch” anything but the most inept of terrorists.

The infrastructure set up by the National Security Agency, however, may only be good for gathering information on the stupidest, lowest-ranking of terrorists. The Prism surveillance program focuses on access to the servers of America’s largest Internet companies, which support such popular services as Skype, Gmail and iCloud. These are not the services that truly dangerous elements typically use.

Truly dangerous people are smart enough to know to avoid anything easily tracked, surveilled or easily exposed. There may be a little value in catching anything that briefly rises to the surface or surveilling the “public faces” of terrorism, but those serious about their agenda will be operating far below these easily-tapped sources.

In a January 2012 report titled “Jihadism on the Web: A Breeding Ground for Jihad in the Modern Age,” the Dutch General Intelligence and Security Service drew a convincing picture of an Islamist Web underground centered around “core forums.” These websites are part of the Deep Web, or Undernet, the multitude of online resources not indexed by commonly used search engines.

The Netherlands’ security service, which couldn’t find recent data on the size of the Undernet, cited a 2003 study from the University of California at Berkeley as the “latest available scientific assessment.” The study found that just 0.2 percent of the Internet could be searched. The rest remained inscrutable and has probably grown since. In 2010, Google Inc. said it had indexed just 0.004 percent of the information on the Internet.

If someone or something doesn’t want to be found on the internet, it’s easy to stay hidden, or at the very least, continue to operate below the dragnet. On top of what’s not being indexed, there are options available to go completely off the grid. This makes steady communication difficult, but not impossible. What does happen on the net is encrypted or otherwise obfuscated.

Communication on the core forums is often encrypted. In 2012, a French court found nuclear physicist Adlene Hicheur guilty of, among other things, conspiring to commit an act of terror for distributing and using software called Asrar al-Mujahideen, or Mujahideen Secrets. The program employed various cutting-edge encryption methods, including variable stealth ciphers and RSA 2,048-bit keys.

As Bershidsky puts it, tools like the PRISM system and phone metadata are much better suited for surveilling those who don’t have any reason to suspect the government has an interest in their movements and actions. In other words: American citizens, the same people who are supposedly not being targeted.

If the FBI and the NSA are only interested in catching clumsy would-be terrorists who can’t be bothered to stay off open channels, then, much like the programs themselves, they can only offer us a false sense of security. Being saved from the bench warmers of the terrorism world doesn’t ultimately do anything to increase safety, but it does give these agencies something to point to when their actions are questioned. (The FBI has practically set up its own “Busting Stupid Terrorists” cottage industry.) “We stopped [insert plausible but impressive number here] attacks, therefore we need to continue collecting ‘dots’ and multiple haystacks of connective material.”

Whatever the FBI and NSA are gathering from skimming the web’s surface is only a minute percentage of what’s available. It would seem that deeper, targeted efforts would be much more effective, rather than simply asking for everything and working backwards. But if the actual intent is to surveill American citizens (with prevented acts of terrorism being a bonus), then these agencies are in the perfect position to do exactly that.

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Comments on “Shallow Surveillance Efforts Like PRISM Will Only Catch The 'Stupidest, Lowest-Ranking Of Terrorists'”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: So wait...

Hey, catching Bin Laden at least created MILLIONS of new jobs, if you believe the government’s claims that we were only in Afghanistan and Iraq to catch Bin Laden. Thanks to all of those troops and private contractors that needed to be hired to do that.

There was a comic about that a few years ago I saw, about all the ‘jobs’ Bin Laden created with around two dozen poorly trained terrorists and some really cheap ordinary objects. The comic ended with Bin Laden inflicting his great terrorist attack yet on America, closing Al Queda and killing the millions of jobs he created!

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: So wait...

That’s a good point, and one I’ve made elsewhere. Any competent government would have captured Bin Laden in a week. But not this one: no, it took these clowns 10 YEARS and then they couldn’t even manage the simple task of bringing him back alive. The stupid…it burns.

vastrightwing (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: So wait...

Bin ladden was captured when it was expedient. Of course they could get him whenever they wanted him. Look where he was “hiding”. That’s not a place a person hides to avoid capture. Bin Ladden knew very well he would be taken in when his time came. Obama wanted a trophy so Bin laden was brought in.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 So wait...

No one did? So everyone was so blinded by bloodlust that nobody could see the military and/or propaganda value in having him in custody? Nobody could see how killing him would inevitably leave room for doubt, both reasonable and unreasonable, about the veracity of the US government’s story?

I believe you. That sort of idiocy explains just about everything about the US response to 9/11.

Ima Fish (profile) says:

Can someone explain something to me. How is tracking everyone’s phone calls supposed to stop terrorism when anyone can buy a private phone?

Last week I bought a TracFone for my son and got it working without ever having to provide any personal information. I bought it and the card with cash. And signed up for the service with a new email address.

th (profile) says:

This makes no sense

This article only makes sense if the NSA is using Google to reach out and FIND terrorist activity. But it doesn’t. It plugs into the undersea cables etc and scopes up absolutely everything that goes across the line, indexed or not. Terrorists would have to have a dedicated separate cabling system to communicate and not be intercepted.

out_of_the_blue says:

The general public IS the target, plus scooping up new tech.

This Techdirt minion just contributes to misunderstanding the purpose of state surveillance: it’s not in any degree to keep the public safe, it’s to enforce tyranny.

Having accepted the state’s false premise, you can only help the state.

And because “capitalist” there’s a strong economic component: NSA sweeps up enough to give insiders tips (the data is “shared” among thousands of corporations), so it’s quite effective industrial espionage (but not used in national interests, only to the privileged Rich). That’s nailed down by Eric Schmidt having remarked that Google (internally) gleans enough to be illegal to use in the stock market.

OldGeezer (profile) says:

Re: Wow, France's laws are strange

I’m not saying that you are wrong but enlighten me how VLC player is infringing. Can’t be infringing on Microsoft’s WM player because VLC has always been years ahead with features and options that Microsoft eventually “borrows” for their player. All the way back to the DOS era Microsoft plays catch up with other people’s programs. Every time there was a new version of DOS all the improvements were MS incorporating popular shareware utilities. For years every new version of Explorer was just rip offs of features that Firefox already had.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Wow, France's laws are strange

VLC has long has problems with patents. This is inevitable if you’re creating a video player — multimedia software patents are perhaps the worst corner of the software patent mess. Software patents in general make it impossible to write a nontrivial application without infringing, and doubly impossible in the field of multimedia.

Anonymous Coward says:

Truly dangerous people are smart enough to know to avoid anything easily tracked, surveilled or easily exposed.

Then it’s a real shame for you that the analysis of the 9/11 attackers and Bin Laden himself shows they routinely used ‘common’ communication methods, as well as ‘advanced’ methods, that are also monitored by security authorities such as Satellite phones.

And it’s a poor argument saying it only stops “SOME” terrorists, when 1 Terrorist or group can do massive damage.

1 is too many, when that 1 results in the deaths of thousands upon thousands of Americans, and people from other countries.

prior to 9/11 it was claims NSA and other security authorities were not doing enough, and not working closely enough together, post 9/11 there was an outcry because it was seen the US Gov was not doing enough, so they responded to that and did more..

Clearly it does not take a great deal of skill or technical expertise to inflict a great deal of damage, so catching the low hanging fruit weeds out a huge amount of potential damage. And any one act is enough !!!.

It also shows how the present methods are therefore working, if it now requires a certain level of expertise to ‘get around’ these systems, that is sufficient deterrent in itself to stop a lot of people even getting started.

You ‘arguments’ are just as effective in support of monitoring and surveillance as it is against it. But nice try though.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

prior to 9/11 it was claims NSA and other security authorities were not doing enough

?Ron Suskind, George W. Bush and the Aug. 6, 2001, PDB?, By Tim Grieve, Salon, June 20, 2006

Bush to briefer: “All right. You’ve covered your ass, now.”


We?ve known for years now that George W. Bush received a presidential daily briefing on Aug. 6, 2001, in which he was warned: ?Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.? We?ve known for almost as long that Bush went fishing afterward.

What we didn?t know is what happened in between the briefing and the fishing, and now Suskind is here to tell us. Bush listened to the briefing, Suskind says, then told the CIA briefer: ?All right. You?ve covered your ass, now.?

Sambo says:

Re: truly dangerous

Is that the same surveillance and ‘common’ communication methods that were used gather intelligence that Iraq had WMD’s and was in bed with Al Qaeda used to justify the Iraq war that ended up with something like 200,000 Iraqi’s dead?

There is no way that this end justifies the means.

Given how much an open ended dragnet this is, may was well give the NSA, MI6 etc something to do.

If enough people started to make sure every email, post and search contained at least one of the following words; infidel, bomb, Bin Laden, jihad, etc then that could be the making of some fun. I wonder if we can get some spammers to help?

Anonymous Coward says:

A man is walking around town, clapping his hands.
Another man stops and asks what the man is doing.
The first man replies, “Keeping the a̶l̶l̶i̶g̶a̶t̶o̶r̶s̶ terrorists away”
The second man replies, “I don’t see any a̶l̶l̶i̶g̶a̶t̶o̶r̶s̶ terrorists.”
The first man replies, “Exactly.”

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

The second man replies, “I don’t see any a̶l̶l̶i̶g̶a̶t̶o̶r̶s̶ terrorists.”

the first man say’s “where were you on 9/11 or Boston, or for the Anthrax letters, or when McVae kill a bunch of people and kids, or when Wall Street was bombed, or when the US Embassies are bombed ??”

the second man say “Oh Now I get it”..

vastrightwing (profile) says:

Spot on!

You are spot on! This PRISM system was never intended to catch terrorists due to its limited scope and capability.

Another point is the cost vs. the return on investment. Look at the cost of this intrusion. The amount of so called terrorists this PRISM program would catch is statistically zero.

So why pour all this money into an ineffectual system to catch the tiniest percentage of terrorists? Because, as you already pointed out, PRISM was designed to spy on us the whole time. I submit PRISM’s main goal is to harvest intelligence on domestic and world wide “enemies” at tax payer’s expense.

This dragnet is effective at uncovering business information and information on enemies of the state. The so called stupid people who aren’t aware they are being spied on. Because why would our own government spy on us? I propose the government isn’t doing it for domestic security, they’re doing to for businesses that paid to get this system going: to get a leg up on the competition. The people in power also want to know how much trouble they’re in before the rest of us reacts.

I think it’s that simple. And yes, the cost justifies that because it cost them nothing: taxpayers funded it. No private funds went into the building of this dragnet. In short, people of power got a free intelligence drag net they can use against us. Therefore the return on investment is infinity. The terrorism angle/justification is only for public consumption.

madasahatter (profile) says:


It is safe to assume that many governments are monitoring Internet, email, cellphone, etc. traffic both domestically and internationally. The only questions are the scope of these programs and what methods cause problems for the spooks. Intelligent terrorists are using techniques to hide their activities from easy monitoring. So what is the real purpose behing these programs?

Roland says:

false premise

It’s never about catching ‘terrists’ or any other bogeyman. It’s about funding. It’s about tranferring taxpayer dollars to companies like Booz Allen. Google ‘War is a Racket’..that includes InfoWar. Loss of freedom, loss of lives, loss of productivity mean nothing as long as the dollars continue to flow. These bureaucrats aren’t rubbing their hands with glee over taking your freedoms away, that’s just a side effect. They are rubbing their hands with glee over their black budget.

nubwaxer (profile) says:


the real criticism is that it is a huge, inefficient and costly venture that yields a tiny amount of dubious information while collecting and storing everything available to it, or in other words a government make work program.
snowden broke the law but a public discussion could bring needed changes to our over reactions that infringe on our rights far beyond keeping us secure.

InThEkNoW says:

Scratching the surface folks

Even this information only scratches how deep the rabbit hole really goes. While debating the technology here, they take the eyes of many off of hush hush new technologies that far surpass the reading of an email or listening to a phone call. Smile 🙂 we are all on candid camera. Good Morning.

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