Former NSA Whistleblower Bill Binney Warns UK Lawmakers Mass Surveillance Will 'Cost Lives In Britain'

from the analysis-paralysis dept

Shortly after the first Snowden documents were leaked, Techdirt wrote about former NSA whistleblower Bill Binney providing some context and history to the newly-revealed information. The central point he made was that trying to collect “haystacks” of data — mass surveillance — doesn’t work, because intelligence agencies have insufficient resources to search through vast digital stores for the “needles” hidden there. It’s a theme Techdirt has returned to a number of times, as has Binney. This week, he was trying to convince a committee of MPs and peers who are scrutinizing the UK’s Snooper’s Charter Bill that too much data leads to “analysis paralysis,” and that targeted surveillance was the way to go. The Guardian reported:

William Binney, a former technical director of the US National Security Agency (NSA), told parliamentarians that the plans for bulk collection of communications data tracking everyone?s internet and phone use are “99% useless” because they would swamp intelligence analysts with too much data.

He said:

This approach costs lives, and has cost lives in Britain because it inundates analysts with too much data. It is 99% useless. Who wants to know everyone who has ever [been] at Google or the BBC? We have known for decades that that swamps analysts.

He claimed that the attacks carried out on September 11 could have been thwarted if the NSA had adopted the more targeted approach he and his colleagues were advocating:

Sixteen months before the attacks on America, our organisation (Sigint Automation Research Center — Sarc) was running a new method of finding terrorist networks that worked on focusing on ‘smart collection’. Their plan was rejected in favour of a much more expensive plan to collect all communications from everyone.

The US large-scale surveillance plan failed. It had to be abandoned in 2005. Checks afterwards showed that communications from the terrorists had been collected, but not looked at in time.

Binney pointed out that in addition to improving the operational efficiency of intelligence agencies, a targeted approach brought with it other important advantages:

It reduces the privacy burden affecting the large number of innocent and suspicion-free persons whose communications are accessible to our systems.

And as a bonus:

Legally protected groups such as MPs, lawyers and journalists could have their communications screened out and excluded from bulk collection and analysis unless a designated and targeted authorisation is in place.

Alongside the facts about the failure of mass surveillance laid before them by Binney and other expert witnesses giving evidence to the committee, let’s hope the MPs and peers also took on board that point about the personal advantages of targeted surveillance for them as a group.

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Comments on “Former NSA Whistleblower Bill Binney Warns UK Lawmakers Mass Surveillance Will 'Cost Lives In Britain'”

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Anonymous Coward says:

This is a government. There is no reigning it in; there is only expansion. Instead of restructuring their giant Spy organization, they will let it continue to run and expand and instead create a more focused, targeted collection agency to run along side it ensuring that the government tradition of redundancy and wasteful spending continues.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

That attitude is similar to many business’ these days: if you’re not growing, you’re dying; there’s no middle ground. While dying isn’t good for business, growing isn’t always good either.

As for government: let’s just say a few departments need to die; or at least be shrunk down back to earth.

wereisjessicahyde (profile) says:

Re: have you ever?

“Have you ever been through your own internet history trying to find “that site yu visited about 3 weeks ago that had that page that….”?

It’s tough isn’t it?”

No not really. It’s very easy. Cick History and type in a keyword. Job done. If it takes you any longer than 15 seconds you are doing it wrong.

Anonymous Coward says:

Not for Terrorism

Mass Surveillance was never and has never been about terrorism. Terrorism is just the go to scarephrase just like “think of the children” for them to get the ever increasingly stupid citizens to buy off on this shit.

Law Enforcement is only ever about one thing… catching people AFTER THE FACT! Deterrence is actually not a big priority for anyone just the catching part. The side effect of this nifty load of shit is now they have a data base they can comb through to fuck you with when they decide you need to “processed” as a dissident!

It is supper easy to get the sheeple ignore government rape of its citizenry if they say someones search history grazed a porn site, terrorist site, or some other site of ill public repute!

Anyone trusting a damn thing the government says will only get a hearty dose of LOST LIBERTY!

Lonyo says:

Common sense

Anyone who has dealt with information knows this. Which makes you wonder how politicians don’t, since they SHOULD be looking at lots of data as part of their jobs, and should know how difficult it is when people just dump data on you and expect you to be able to work out what’s relevant.

Of course, maybe it’s because the people at the top have people beneath them sifting through the mountains of data and filtering it for them, so they don’t understand how difficult it is.

Either you end up with too much data for the number of people, or you have a massive number of people dealing with the data, potentially to the point where quality drops, or the expense is just unsustainably high.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Common sense

I think quite a few politicians understand. An awful lot of ’em are lawyers, and lawyers are very familiar with the effects of a document dump. As you said, they just don’t care because they’ve got underlings. Underlings who need to do busy-work to get paid for doing a job that exists for the sole purpose of existing.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Common sense

Which makes you wonder how politicians don’t, since they SHOULD be looking at lots of data as part of their jobs, and should know how difficult it is when people just dump data on you and expect you to be able to work out what’s relevant.

For most of them the only data they’re particularly interested in is ‘How much did that one company give me last election, and what did they want me to do for them in return?’

W says:

“Legally protected groups such as MPs, lawyers and journalists could have their communications screened out and excluded from bulk collection and analysis unless a designated and targeted authorisation is in place.”

As this is phrased, it implies that bulk collection is okay as long as certain, few “protected” professions are exempt from bulk monitoring.

As someone that isn’t an MP, a lawyer, or a journalist, this feels unfair.

DocGerbil100 (profile) says:

The point of surveillance

A few people here seem to be missing an obvious thing: mass surveillance in the UK is not really about national security, law-enforcement, controlling the general public or anything remotely similar. These things are implicated and involved, certainly, but they’re generally not the goal, as such.

No, mass surveillance here is really about just one thing: getting the taxpayer to hand over money by the fuckload for a fundamentally useless task.

From the point of view of the intelligence community, it’s about getting the cash to build gigantic new datacentres, staffed with tens of thousands of people. They might not be doing anything useful, but the responsibility of keeping everyone organised does ensure that the bosses of GCHQ get to enjoy salaries an order of magnitude higher than otherwise.

From the point of view of industry, it’s about getting paid billions of pounds in taxpayers money for the same new datacentres. Unlike the intel community, however, they’re unlikely to be satisfied with mere maintenance: as lucrative as those contracts may be, there’s undoubtedly always far more money to be had from building new datacentres, stuffed to the gills with the finest brand-new computers available to humanity.

From the point of view of anyone senior in Her Majesty’s Government, it’s about getting enormous payoffs from one of the companies above. Whether it’s an extra-large brown envelope stuffed with cash, or a non-executive directorship at the company, the rewards far exceed anything they can earn legitimately, particularly given how few of them have any discernible professional skills beyond public lying.

As a special bonus, since by definition there will always be more information in existence than they have access to, any failures to prevent torrorism can always be attributed to a lack of new powers and responsibilities and the new datacentres that go with them. No-one need ever apologise for anything, because it’s forever and always going to be a previous government’s fault, for not building enough new datacentres when they had the chance.

I think that basically sums it all up. There may be a few people in the halls of power who actually care about doing a good job or being in control, but if so, they’re Britain’s best-kept secret. People who work for parliament only care about money – and they invariably fill their departments with friends and family who think the same way. There’s no reason to think GCHQ, MI6, etc, are staffed by anyone more concerned with the public good than their employers.

This is Britain, PLC. Where greed and total self-interest are the only things that matter.

klaus (profile) says:

Re: The point of surveillance

The UK has far easier ways of diverting tax revenue to the private sector.

£57 billion for a mere 119 miles of track must have George Stephenson spinning in his grave. No-one in the UK wants this but the Gov. and the private sector. This is very telling, but it’ll likely go ahead anyway, tearing through the heart of England’s finest greensward.

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