NSA: Sure We Can Search Your Emails, But Not Ours

from the facepalm dept

The NSA. They’re the no-such-agency with the time-honored tradition of looking through the metadata we all leave behind, like the scum-trail of a slug. Also, our emails, social media communications, recipe exchanges, and those obituaries we write up for our enemies in nearly-sexual anticipation of their demise (editor’s note: damn it, Timothy, nobody does that but you!). They have the kind of technological hardware and software that would make an IT admin’s pants explode. They can search through approximately all the stuff, ever, anywhere, to root out terrorist plots and reality TV spoilers.

But you want them to find one of their own internal emails? That’s just crazy-talk, apparently. This, according to ProPublica’s Justin Elliot:

I filed a request last week for emails between NSA employees and employees of the National Geographic Channel over a specific time period. The TV station had aired a friendly documentary on the NSA and I want to better understand the agency’s public-relations efforts. A few days after filing the request, Blacker called, asking me to narrow my request since the FOIA office can search emails only “person by person,” rather than in bulk. The NSA has more than 30,000 employees.

There’s no central method to search an email at this time with the way our records are set up, unfortunately,” NSA Freedom of Information Act officer Cindy Blacker told me last week.

I know, I know. you’re thinking, “Will my insurance cover a broken, face-palmed nose?” But surely there’s an explanation for this. Let’s think about it logically. The NSA is essentially a spy organization. They deal in lots of classified stuff and they probably send a lot of information that is classified to one another. After all, they don’t have to worry about being spied on, since they’re doing the spying, follow? So, they set up a system, something like an ultra-awesome Mission Impossible platform, where searching for emails between employees is impossible, because it’s been designed to be impossible. Got it? This is all part of the system, a way to keep information privileged. It’s not ineptitude, they’re just guarding secrets, and that’s why the FOIA request can’t be fulfilled. Right, Cindy?

The system is “a little antiquated and archaic,” she added.

Well, slap a puppy, that’s just unbelievable. And I mean that in every sense of the word. I don’t believe it. The NSA can likely tell me how many emails I’ve sent to whom and about what subjects, but it can’t find any of its own internal emails via the kind of search any competent IT manager could do in his/her sleep? I literally don’t believe that. Neither does anyone else concerned, apparently.

“It’s just baffling,” says Mark Caramanica of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. “This is an agency that’s charged with monitoring millions of communications globally and they can’t even track their own internal communications in response to a FOIA request.”

I think the truth is much closer to they won’t rather than can’t. But, hey, what do I know?

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Comments on “NSA: Sure We Can Search Your Emails, But Not Ours”

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Tim Griffiths (profile) says:

You, I don't know...

As much as I agree that they wouldn’t even if they could it really wouldn’t surprise me if they can’t. This kind of disparity between parts of the same organisation shouldn’t be surprising even in actual companies let alone when it comes to government interstcutere. I mean Valve recently admitted that the process to put games on steam still uses faxes.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: You, I don't know...

But see, here’s the thing: if they can’t search through their own emails for important data, how are people supposed to believe that they can do the same with the countless other emails/phone calls/data they’ve scooped up? And if they can’t efficiently and effectively search through all that data, what exactly is their excuse for grabbing it all?

Arthur Moore (profile) says:

Re: Re: You, I don't know...

Like Tim Said. Different systems.

It could be that they’re either running an ultra secure system with per person encryption. What’s more likely though, is they’re running a POC custom system build by a government contractor twenty years ago for way too much money.

On the bright side, if Nat Geo uses Gmail as their backed, they they could just use PRISM to find everything they’re looking for. 😉

Bergman (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: You, I don't know...

If NSA went to Google with a warrant, and Google replied “sorry, we deliberately designed our system so we can’t comply,” what would be the result?

Grand juries, prosecution, possibly the RICO Act.

NSA, like all other government agencies is legally required to be compliant with laws like the Freedom of Information Act. Deliberately designing their system to be incompatible (and ‘accidentally’ forgetting to put that in the specifications IS deliberate) is a criminal act. Probably a criminal conspiracy, given the number of people likely involved.

Tim Griffiths (profile) says:

Re: Re: You, I don't know...

And that changes nothing about the idea that their e-mail systems could be a outdated junk box setup decades ago by a half arsed contractor.

Now if you mean that they could find those e-mails by going through what they collected on the address they were being sent to? Sure, they could, but that’s slightly above the paygrade of whatever poor sap is likely dealing with freedom of information requests.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: You, I don't know...

So how exactly are they supposed to ensure security, like finding leakers of classified information then? They just don’t have anything in place, huh? Someone working there could just be all “I’m upset and going to email all these classified documents to some newspaper because it can’t be traced back to me!” Makes total sense that the NSA would not have ANY WAY to investigate internal affairs. Total. Sense.

Anonymous Coward says:


If it isn’t clear at this point that they’re just thumbing their nose at us with all these bullshit, half-assed comments, then it never will be. What kind of arrogance do these shitholes have that they would just be so brazen about lying?

…and if it’s the case that they really can’t search their own emails, and instead put all that funding toward the ability to search OURS, then some asshole somewhere in that massive bureaucracy that APPROVED this (convenient lack of) “functionality” needs to be fired for nothing short of gross incompetence.

I said it yesterday, and seem to be finding myself saying it everyday – these bullshit excuses are really, really getting old.

Anonymous Coward says:

The system is ?a little antiquated and archaic,” she added.

If it’s that out of date, that means it is at this point an insecure system, so even if I believed the government has the best of intentions (because long standing governments have historically “proven” how well they look after the real welfare of their citizens), they are still essentially admitting that all of this data is sitting unsafe and just ripe for some third party to come along and pluck it (after all nothing paints a bullseye like the largest datastore in the history of mankind).

Of course, as I’ve pointed out previously, while Snowden was the first to expose much of this data publicly, who is to say he is/was the first to actually gather all this information up (a point driven home when Putin made the statement a few weeks ago that Snowden couldn’t tell him anything he didn’t already know)

Anonymous Coward says:

It's simple really why the NSA can't do that

It’s simple why the NSA can’t find the emails in question!

Obviously their 30,000 employees all have a SINGLE email address, where all 30,000 employees have access to the same email account. And rather than send emails out, they just write up an email and save it to the ‘draft’ folder for the correct person to find and read, and then delete the email.

That’s just how terrorists and evil criminal organizations do things to leave no trail behind. So OBVIOUSLY the NSA considers themselves a part of a criminal organization that has to cover their own tracks.

Oh and for how they communicated with the National Geographic Channel? Obviously they set up another email address that someone at the NGC also had access to, and then they deleted all the draft messages once their business was concluded.

Brazilian Guy says:

“The NSA can likely tell me how many emails I’ve sent to whom and about what subjects, but it can’t find any of its own internal emails via the kind of search any competent IT manager could do in his/her sleep? I literally don’t believe that. Neither does anyone else concerned, apparently.”

Well, i heard they used to have this really competent guy, a pretty decent chap, what was his name? Edward something or other…

But seriously, that reinforces the theory that their internal system archteture is somewhat weak at logging internal activity, specially if you are a privileged user. After all, the guy managing the IT would probably have to pass the most rigorous background checkings. So yeah, plenty of oportunities for internal leaks, information disclosed for profit for third parties, who are only valuable as inteligence as long as they remain at large classified.

Meanwhile, i’ve read at Reuters that Russia is about to grant Snowden ingress in the country as immigrant.

Adam (profile) says:

Think outside the box

I know how this can be solved by the NSA, it’s easy.

National Geographic is an outside group of people, so they are probably scooping up all the metadata on every National Geographic email address. All you have to do is ‘query’ the system for emails that were between National Geographic and NSA agents then search those individual email accounts.

(I can also guarantee you that if they thought somebody was leaking classified information to them they would know every employee that has ever emailed them ever within hours)

Michael (profile) says:

Narrow that down

between NSA employees and employees of the National Geographic Channel over a specific time period

They can get that information with a little narrowing of the request.

It is simple, ask for email to and from National Geographic Channel over a specific time period

You can then just look for all of the ones that went to and from NA employees.

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