Hide Techdirt is off for the long weekend! We'll be back with our regular posts tomorrow.

Is There Any Alternative To The NSA's 'Take It All' Approach?

from the intelligent-intelligence-services dept

At the moment, the only half-way serious attempt at justifying the NSA’s “take it all” approach to surveillance is to claim that there is no alternative if we want intelligence agencies to spot and stop extreme threats like terrorism:

President Obama and his top advisers have concluded that there is no workable alternative to the bulk collection of huge quantities of “metadata,” including records of all telephone calls made inside the United States.

But maybe there are other ways of achieving the same goals, and it’s just that the US government is loath to give up the capabilities it has developed to spy on its own citizens and the rest of the world, and so doesn’t try too hard to find any. For example, one threat that is often invoked to justify surveillance is that of terrorists causing explosions, potentially with great loss of life. Searching through trillions of pieces of metadata to find clues about bombers before they act really is like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack — it’s significant that NSA leaders have used this metaphor time and again. Wouldn’t it be better to search for signs of the explosives directly, as in this research project, reported by New Scientist?

Bomb-makers or chemists with Breaking Bad crystal-meth labs better watch out. A sewer system full of chemical sensors could sniff out their homemade labs as part of a €4.5 million European Union-funded research programme called Emphasis.

The idea is that once a sewer sensor finds telltale traces of home-brewed explosives, it sounds an alarm and a police team carrying a portable, high-resolution sensing unit can be dispatched to narrow the search and pinpoint the exact location.

This approach would not only be proportionate — it’s tightly focused on the specific threat, not on vague epiphenomena that the threat may produce in the Internet’s vast flood of digital data — it would also be far more effective when fully deployed, since it would allow the actual bomb-making laboratories and materials themselves to be located, not just people who are discussing related matters.

Maybe the NSA’s dogged reliance on the haystack approach is impeding the search for more intelligent methods. Instead of varying the selectors, or exploring yet more hops in the hope that terrorists will somehow be revealed in the vast stores of the world’s metadata, a better approach would be to develop new ways to spot specific major threats — whether it is explosives, chemical weapons or radioactive material. If those can be addressed effectively in this way, there will be no need for a “take it all” approach, and we can go back to a system where surveillance is the exception, directed at real suspects, rather than the rule, encompassing us all.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca, and +glynmoody on Google+

Filed Under: , , ,

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “Is There Any Alternative To The NSA's 'Take It All' Approach?”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
Anonymous Coward says:

“Is There Any Alternative To The NSA’s ‘Take It All’ Approach?”


Perhaps do some old fashioned police/detective work?

Maybe get a warrant after identifying suspects?

And, I dunno, not use “OMG! TERRORISTS” as a justification for wiping their ass with the constitution?

You know, act like a civilized country would.

Anonymous Coward says:

Alternative to take all?

The alternative is to take nothing and its cost effective too.
Terrorists are not a threat, never have been and never will be. You are more likely to die in an automotive accident than at the hands of terrorists.

A war on cars would save many lives but people would protest in the streets to defend their right to travel.
War on terror will not save lives but it sounds scary so people give in like little sheep.

All the war on terror is designed to do is give those in power more power.

Griff (profile) says:


There’s an obvious tradeoff. We’d like to only intrude on privacy a) when there is reasonable suspicion b) with a court order. However, we’d also very much like (upon finding someone is a clear target of interest) to be able to look at data from before we knew the person was a target of interest.
The only way (the NSA would argue) is to store everything in case you need to look at it later.
The flaw with this is that we can’t trust them to apply suitable discretion in when they look at stuff.

But imagine a different arrangement, where an independent entity logged and stored everything, and only made it available to law enforcement / intelligence services with a court order.

So NSA/FBI could some to this entity and say “we now believe person xxx to be a terrorist – here’s a court order looking at his last 1 yr of phone metadata”.

Or they might come and say “we believe that this algorithm, run in the background, looking at credit card purchases, can identify bomb makers”. And they’d explain why and show they had a court order for it. Then the independent institution would run the algorithm on their behalf and say “OK we found 2 people”,but not name them.
So NSA/FBI would apply for a new court order to have these 2 people’s phone records tracked looking for a reason to suspect (including past calls). And the identities of the suspects would still not be shared with NSA/FBI until some reasonable grounds for suspicion emerged.

This organisation would be non political, separately funded, and would receive the lions share of the current NSA’s budget for R&D, but actual law enforcement would have to jump through legal hoops to get near anything that the independent entity logged.

It would be publically known that this entity existed, though not necessarily public what it’s capabilities were.

It would have a very strong legal team and open source security. It’s charter would be that it is specifically there to serve the people, and would be enshrined in a constitutional amendment. The council that led this body would be long term appointments, somewhat like SCOTUS.
Any data recording capability (such as cameras that read licence plates) anywhere in the nation would feed into this organisation. Aggregating such data outside of this body would be a felony.

Brazenly Anonymous says:

Re: Tradeoffs

Your suggestion is effectively a cosmetic name change, not a solution by any reasonable standards.

However, we’d also very much like (upon finding someone is a clear target of interest) to be able to look at data from before we knew the person was a target of interest.

We don’t mandate the preservation of this history in any other area. We don’t need it here. Without a demonstrable need, the costs in privacy and currency are simply too high to justify the practice in any form.

Use the same practices as are used in targeted wiretapping and discovery processes.

nasch (profile) says:

Re: Tradeoffs

But imagine a different arrangement, where an independent entity logged and stored everything, and only made it available to law enforcement / intelligence services with a court order.

That’s how it would start out. But over time, people would move back and forth between the two agencies, and between this agency and law enforcement generally. Law enforcement and intelligence would be the agency’s only customers, so you would get the equivalent of regulatory capture. You would end up with the “independent” agency sending data to the NSA after getting nothing more than an email from an analyst that he wants to look at something.

Anonymous Coward says:

Is There Any Alternative To The NSA’s ‘Take It All’ Approach?

Yes, do their job properly, like alert immigration when hey lose track of a suspect, 9/11. Keep an eye on people that they have been warned about and alert the local authorities, Boston bombing. Keeping everything that they know secret, other than what is briefed to senior government figures is a sure recipe for failure.

Jober (profile) says:

If this system were implemented, wouldn’t any nefarious bomb-makers simply become a little bit neater in response and not dump their bomb-refuse down the drain (or, at least, dump it down the drain someplace far away from their bomb factory)?

I’m all in favor of alternative to unchecked mass-surveillance, but let’s make sure they’re workable and effective as opposed to YET ANOTHER security theater distraction.

Anonymous Coward says:

If you have the selectors to filter it once you have it, why do you take it all, why not just the stuff you wanted?

Why is it ‘selected’ and the ‘discarded’ bit kept anyway?

Why? For what purpose?

And why do you collect the records of 300 million Americans to see if they’ve been called by a handful of terrorists? Instead of monitoring a handful of terrorists to see who they call?

You may then argue that, ‘well terrorist has a plot I only just found out about and I want to find out who he called (in the past)’, how far back can a plot go? A quarter? But that data is in the telcos for billing for that long( and longer), so why not just go get a warrant?

What exactly is the issue with getting warrants?

None of it really makes sense, unless the purpose of collecting this data is to data mine it for patterns. That’s the clear subtext here.

Do you let the spooks spy on the people? The judges, the police, the politicians, the journalists, do you let the spooks spy on them all the way the KGB does, and if you do, what makes you think your democracy can survive?

nasch (profile) says:

Re: Re:

You’re making the silly assumption that the real objective of this over reaching surveilance is to stop terrorists.

Even if that’s there objective, I think there’s a hammer and nail problem. The NSA’s expertise is in data gathering and analysis, so that’s what they’re going to do. They don’t know anything about sniffing for explosives, so of course they’re not going to pursue that.

FM Hilton (profile) says:

Workable Alternatives?

No-there are none when it comes to the NSA and the intelligence ‘community’. Give them an inch and they’ll take 10 million miles.

Here’s my suggestion:
Shut the NSA down, completely. Fire them all, and tear down the buildings. Prosecute all involved.

Works for me. The only way to stop it. We can’t allow this to continue in any form.

Otherwise we’ll just do the same old shit in about another 10 years, wailing and weeping that we never knew about this.

Jerrymiah (profile) says:

Is there an alternative to

First, I’d suggest to throw Gen Alexander in jail along with Feinstein, Pelosi, Rogers, Hayden, Clapper … and all for the rest of their life (although I don’t think that will ever happen). Second enact a law to stopo lobbying once and for all (that’s been tries before without luck but let’s have a serious look at it). Third, defund the NSA completely and put together a new security system with a major emphasis on the respect of the constitution.

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published.

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »

Follow Techdirt

Techdirt Daily Newsletter

Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Discord
The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...