NSA FOIA Response Claims Data On Vendor Contracts 'Unsearchable'

from the it's-easier-to-not-find-something-when-you-don't-bother-looking-for-it dept

Trying to pry information loose from the NSA is nearly impossible. The ODNI has been dropping documents related to the NSA’s various surveillance programs, but that’s as a result of a lawsuit, something that goes completely unacknowledged at the ODNI’s site. People requesting a peek into what the NSA has collected on them PERSONALLY have been universally met with a boilerplate response that “neither confirms nor denies” the existence of this data.

MuckRock has been filing dozens of FOIA requests in hopes of freeing up info on the many contractors employed by the NSA. Unsurprisingly, this has met with little success. While it did manage to secure 16 pages on French security firm Vupen, its other requests have been met with claims that no responsive documents have been found. This is hard to believe considering some of the requests are about known NSA contractors.

But one recent response went past baffling into the realm of the surreal in its assertion that the keywords MuckRock sought info on were just too “wide open” to be useful.

A search for overly broad keywords such as “CNO” and “computer network attack” would be tantamount to conducting a manual search through thousands of folders and then reading each document in order to determine whether the document pertains to a contract.

So, the agency that claims to be able to sift through millions of pieces of communications and data somehow claims it can’t wrangle its own data. Of course, the NSA can’t even search its own internal email, so asking it to run a keyword search for contract documents is probably out of the question. But this assertion by the NSA is a bit puzzling, as it almost implies a lot of what’s being searched for isn’t even digitized, as MuckRock points out.

In other words, the NSA is claiming that, for external contractors, large portions of its $10.8 billion budget are tracked primarily through paper indices not searchable even by relatively broad topic.

In addition, the agency’s response appears to be saying that they don’t even have a designated place to store paper copies of contracts, but place them in folders with other documents.

So, how does the agency track its interactions with its “vendors?” Does it even matter? The agency’s own budget is secret (though not so much anymore), so a lack of solid accounting hardly matters. But it’s still rather disturbing to see such a deliberately cavalier attitude towards accountability.

How do they keep track of their activities if they don’t have an electronic contracts database? How do they, as a complex organization, determine budgetary needs if they cannot easily track their own spending? How do they measure the performance of vendor contracts, if as they claim, the contracts are shuffled to some paper file that may not see the light of day unless someone requests it through a FOIA request?

As MuckRock points out, this obfuscation is likely deliberate. The NSA is a data black hole. Lots of info flows in but it rarely, if ever, leaves. Any questions those charged with approving funding might have can be waved away by citing magic words like “national security,” and that’s even before its flacks in the halls of Congress start erecting roadblocks.

Almost certainly the NSA has very effective ways of searching its own internal files. After all, its defenders often boast about the number of geniuses it employs. It just has no compelling reason to do so. Even being compelled by courts to kick loose documents has its limits. As we saw just recently, a court order to declassify the government’s secret opinion on the Section 215 collections was flat out refused by the DOJ. If the FISA court can’t get the government to comply, then average citizens have no chance whatsoever.

MuckRock is continuing to assault the NSA’s FOIA defenses. It’s hoped that with enough requests, info will be pried loose that will indicate what sorts of keywords generate responsive documents — and which ones result in ridiculous “this is impossible” statements from the agency.

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Comments on “NSA FOIA Response Claims Data On Vendor Contracts 'Unsearchable'”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Remember this?

“NSA performs its mission the right way ? lawful, compliant and in a way that protects civil liberties and privacy.”

“NSA performs its mission exceptionally well. We strive to be the best that we can be, because that’s what America requires as part of its defense in a dangerous world.”

“NSA is committed to increased transparency, public dialog and faithful implementation of any changes required by our overseers.”

Anonymous Coward says:

So they can search ANYTHING about us, even what type of freaky porn we like, but they can’t search their internal databases on important stuff like that?

Yeah, I’m calling BULLSHIT on that.

But let’s assume it were true – how can they still keep claiming that there’s a ton of oversight and that they can easily be audited by the intelligence committee, when you can’t even get find stuff like this in their network, or what e-mails they’ve sent each other (older story)?!

So which is it? Either they are lying about not being able to get the data (most likely), or then it’s very hard to audit and oversee NSA, which means they CAN’T have proper oversight at all as it is right now.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re:

So they can search ANYTHING about us, even what type of freaky porn we like, but they can’t search their internal databases on important stuff like that?

Makes perfect sense actually. The first category of information can be used by them, against others, while the second could be used by others, against them, so they’d have plenty of incentive to be as sloppy and low-tech as they could go when it comes to record keeping regarding their own activities.

Of course that makes the rest of your comment all the more spot on, if they can’t even find their own records, the idea that any real ‘oversight’ over their activities is possible is just shown to be that much more illusionary.

ThatFatMan (profile) says:


Don’t you see, they do employ geniuses. And one of them decided that if they keep paper files it is much more difficult to prevent people from gaining access to the information they legally request.

And even if it’s not true, and they don’t actually keep all this stuff in paper files, how do we really know? They can say it all they want, and it gives them an excuse. Pretty good way to keep people from getting information when they can’t just say “disclosing our contractor information is a grave risk to national security”.

Ok, so maybe it isn’t genius level stuff, but clearly the people trying to withhold all the NSA data aren’t completely stupid either.

Beta (profile) says:

amber is transparent

Thank you for your inquiry. In response to such a request from a member of the public, NSA protocol requires that the files are to be printed on a reserved teletype using specially yellowed paper and Eisenhower-era ribbon (see Public Access Protocols section XIV appendix 5.ii), then reviewed by a senior clerk (retained for that function alone) by the light of a single incandescent ceiling bulb (c.f. appendix 5.iii) while wearing half-moon glasses, fingerless black woolen gloves and brown woolen scarf (c.f. 7.ii, iv,v). Inquiries involving sensitive current events may also call for coal-oil lamps and a rolling librarian’s ladder. Unfortunately, your request would require quantities of goosequill pens, tallow candles and artificial cobwebs not currently available under our operating budget of 5 silver dollars per lunar eclipse.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Fair is fair

The government requires telcos to allow access to their systems for law enforcement purposes (CALEA) — in other words, telcos are forced to provide mechanisms for a kind of transparency.

The government requires certain standards for your recordkeeping for tax purposes. Another kind of tranparency.

The government requires banks to detect and inform them when certain financial transactions are made. Transparency again.

The government needs to stop demanding things from citizens that it does not demand of itself. Being nonresponsive to FOIA requests because of poor recordkeeping should never be an allowable excuse. If we plebes are required to provide access and minimum recordkeeping standards, all government agencies should be required to as well.

Anonymous Coward says:

NSA is here to stay. Why don’t they give the Metadata to SCIENCE to study human interactions?

It would revolutionise the way we interact, know, and be a paradigm shift in understanding our civilisation.

In addition, The 2012 election.Can it be proven that presidential loyalists, supporters, or handlers did Not use NSA tools to win?

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