NSA Official Admits Agency's Surveillance Covers Even More People Than Previously Indicated

from the today,-most-the-world;-tomorrow,-the-world! dept

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.

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Comments on “NSA Official Admits Agency's Surveillance Covers Even More People Than Previously Indicated”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Geolocation data

From the Atlantic Wire article:

Update, 1:10 p.m.: Another bit of news. The longstanding question of whether or not phone metadata collected by NSA includes geolocation data has been answered. “We are not collecting that data,” Inglis said, “under this program.”

I watched most of the webcast of this hearing myself ?I was watching the webcast when this question came up? and I noted the not ?under this program? answer.

The natural followup should have been:

Q: Well, are you collecting geolocation data under some other program?

But that natural followup question was not asked.

Why didn’t the the Congressman ask that followup question? Makes you wonder. Well, it would make me wonder, if I hadn’t gotten so cynical already.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Geolocation data

They are liars! The Verizon vacuum authorization specifically calls out routing information. It may not include phone gps data (as you say, ‘under this program’), but if they know the cell tower, they have geolocation data.

It’s like their lie that they don’t collect names, just phone numbers, IMEI numbers, etc. As if they couldn’t use those to find names.

Pragmatic says:

Re: Bigger haystack

Follow the money. Since private contractors are involved they’re making a lot of money out of this. Suppose I’m right; what is that money being spent on? If the answer is “data storage,” it’s not about “hoovering” up data so the enforcement agencies can fish at their leisure for incriminating information. It’s about making money by pretending that hoovering up data can save us from the terrorists.

Emperor’s New Clothes, anyone?

Anonymous Coward says:

the ‘current administration’ doesn’t give a toss about how just about every person in the world, let alone the USA has been spied on and had their rights violated. that means nothing! it’s unimportant! it’s just a ‘side issue’ that we should all ignore and allow these agencies to continue doing. what is far more important is the fact that a person that worked for one of these agencies was so disgruntled by the whole affair, he gave the information of what was happening to the world! he couldn’t continue doing what he was paid very handsomely to do because it betrayed what the citizens believed to be sacrosanct, their rights to freedom and to privacy!
how could anyone possibly think that the spying on millions of people was not perfectly ok to do but the revealing of that spying was the second most heinous crime on the planet (the most heinous of crimes being, yes, you’ve guessed it, file sharing!!)!

GeneralEmergency (profile) says:


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.

…Because Organizing for America would love to have this data for the blind march toward its Marxist goals.


Annonimus says:

“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.”

How the fuck is monitoring all of the internet omniscience?

For starters you would have such a huge data pile that even if you could make the computers that could connect all the dots in minutes or seconds you would still fail to find useful information because with that many haystacks in a single pile you are no longer looking trough hay for a needle, you are also looking trough all the other needles, various car parts, old attic junk, toxic runoff and most of the swamplands of the state of Florida just to get to a needle and the way the NSA is working these days you can’t even be sure if a needle is what they should be looking for the first place.

aldestrawk says:

collecting data from connections 2-3 hops away is useful

Firstly, I am not defending the NSA’s policy here, I think it is an atrocious invasion of privacy and degradation of liberty.

However, it does make sense to collect all that data. Let’s suppose for a particular terrorist target you collect data on 10 million individuals. So, when the data mining software is set to not filter out any of this there is a huge useless set of results. The software can be set to filter out individuals with depending on the number of connections to the target and depending on the weighted value for types of connections. When you set the filters to a high enough threshold you should be able to get a manageable list of individuals. This is what connecting the dots means.

Guardian says:


thats anyone they also might think has ever talked to had a conversation with and didnt even know they were talking to terrorists.
WHICDH means is like going out getting dressed up like a biker buying a harley and hten being bothered by a cop because he thinks your a criminal….

YUP works also if your a black youth and you get a nice job and nice car as levar berton of trek found out recently…

AND with the bar on cops being so low (see ban lifted on testing them for brains lifted) its all gonna get worse before it gets better…

WHAT really blew this away besides snowden was that audio recording of the university students slamming those NSA recruiters.

i’d love to see the file on me …..ive seen some…its funny no really./////and i sit here playing games yacking away and ….teaching knolwedge to a lot of good people.


Spaceman Spiff (profile) says:

7 degrees of separation

I guess these knuckleheads never heard that there are only 7 degrees (links) of separation between any two people in the world? Actually, on average, there are far fewer than that. There is only 1 degree between me and former President Nixon, and zero degrees between me and the inventor of the H-bomb, Edward Teller, as well as Linus Pauling, Fred Hoyle, and many more such… So that means, that anyone who knows me is only 1 or 2 degrees separated from those people. So, if I know someone who knows (or has met) some terrorist when they were students in school, there are then only 1 or 2 degrees separating me from them. Does that make me a terrorist? And for whatever it’s worth, I am zero degrees separated from the infamous “Weathermen” of Vietnam War fame (Chicago Riots, etc), though we were certainly NOT considered friends – quite the opposite! So, yes I knew “terrorists” of the last generation. The only incendiary device I ever threw was a pamphlet protesting the Vietnam “Conflict”…

DNY (profile) says:

Three Hops and Six Degrees of Separation

“Three hops” from a given person could easily cover a goodly portion of the population of the world. And “three hops” from every person the U.S. suspects of ties to terrorism probably covers most of the e-mail users in the world.

I’ve thought about the claim that if one connects everyone to each of their acquaintances no one is more than six degrees of separation from anyone else, and came to the conclusion that it’s likely true (leaving aside isolated tribes in the Amazon and African bush): I know I’ve met someone (the metropolitan archbishop of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese) who in turn has met not only every recent POTUS, but also Bashar Al Assad, add one more degree of separation (in terms of acquaintances) and I’m likely only three degrees of separation from every world leader and every notable in U.S. politics (and a fair number of unsavory types in the Middle East), add three more and…

In terms of e-mail communications, I communicate with my own bishop fairly regularly, he with the metropolitan archbishop, and he in turn has communicated electronically with Assad. So I would be swept up in a “three hop” search centered on the President of Syria. What this shows is that a “three hop” search is a fishing expedition and that while direct communications with a terror suspect might constitute probable cause, even a “two hop” search (which would catch my bishop when looking at Assad) is not based on probable cause, is a grotesque violation of the 4th Amendment, and in terms of improving national security is a complete waste of time.

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