For An Intelligence Agency, The NSA Doesn't Seem To Have Much Idea What's Going On Inside Its Own Walls

from the inside-of-a-panopticon-is-the-least-secure-area dept

Better late than never, the NSA seems like it's finally getting around to fixing the problems on the inside of the agency.

So sharp is the fear of threats from within that last year the NSA planned to launch at least 4,000 probes of potentially suspicious or abnormal staff activity after scrutinizing trillions of employee keystrokes at work. The anomalous behavior that sent up red flags could include staffers downloading multiple documents or accessing classified databases they do not normally use for their work, said two people familiar with the software used to monitor employee activity.
Somebody's putting in some overtime! In addition to sifting through the vast amount of data collected in its many quasi-legal (and some completely illegal) programs, the agency has also had to wade through "trillions" of logged employee keystrokes. (The haystacks are coming from inside the house!)

This investigation has chewed up a lot of money with very little in the way of results, suffering from "critical delays" and (go figure) a lack of cohesive implementation. Meanwhile, a sysadmin headed to Hong Kong with an NSA-to-go kit. Not that a more expeditious rollout of the investigations would have mattered.
Contractors like Snowden, an NSA spokeswoman said, were not included in the plans to reinvestigate 4,000 security clearances.
The agency claims these investigations aren't in place to root out offenders (although it's certainly welcome to do so), but to "reduce the potential" of an insider compromise.
“Periodic re-investigations are conducted as one due-diligence component of our multifaceted insider threat program.”
Well, whatever's been put into place so far has failed dramatically, and what's being pursued doesn't look very promising. The agency claims the first rollout was stunted by resources being diverted towards mitigating the fallout from Bradley Manning's leaks. Now, as the agency tries to reignite the investigative process, Snowden (and several media entities) are standing behind it, periodically blowing out the flame.

The NSA still seems to have no idea what exactly Snowden took and that lack of knowledge has forced it to play nothing but defense since the leaks began. The internal vetting process seems to be about as "efficient" as the external process, albeit for very different reasons. An agency that can't search its own email doesn't have a chance against an individual with access and determination.

And then there's this aspect of the whole debacle, as pointed out by Bruce Schneier:
I am completely croggled by the fact that the NSA apparently had absolutely no contingency plans for this sort of thing.
It doesn't, and that's a very worrying issue for a NATIONAL SECURITY AGENCY. At this point, the NSA can't close the barn doors fast enough and every assertion it makes about the limits, oversight or "trustworthiness" of its programs is usually undermined within a few days by yet another leak. Something aimed at nothing more than a "reduction" in leaky insiders just isn't going to be good enough. On the other hand, the public is benefiting from the NSA's pain -- it's now more informed about the agency's activities than it's been for the previous half-decade -- and the cumulative effects of the leak-and-denial cycle have forced the NSA to actually participate in a national discussion and make tentative steps towards transparency.



Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Sep 3rd, 2013 @ 9:52am

    NSA is the Honeypot

    All of a sudden, I've come to realize, we have built the biggest honeypot ever!

    1. Collect as much private information as possible on everyone and everything we can
    2. Watch everyone who attempts to access or use it like a hawk.
    3. ???
    4. Profit!?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2.  
    identicon
    Michael, Sep 3rd, 2013 @ 10:06am

    NSA planned to launch at least 4,000 probes...red flags could include staffers downloading multiple documents or accessing classified databases they do not normally use for their work

    With sophisticated flagging algorithms like those, it's surprising they didn't end up having to probe more of their employees.

     

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  3.  
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    Michael, Sep 3rd, 2013 @ 10:08am

    Can we PLEASE stop calling the NSA an "Intelligence" agency?

    I'm thinking something more like: "A group of bumbling idiots"

     

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  4.  
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    Paul, Sep 3rd, 2013 @ 10:26am

    Re: NSA = "A group of bumbling idiots"

    Thanks for stating the obvious problem in its simplest form.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5.  
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    Ben S (profile), Sep 3rd, 2013 @ 10:26am

    Re:

    You know, there's a reason some feel government intelligence is an oxymoron.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
     
    identicon
    out_of_the_blue, Sep 3rd, 2013 @ 10:55am

    The "croggled" one simply assumes was not planned.

    "NSA apparently had absolutely no contingency plans" -- But IF a limited hangout, then they're proceeding as expected and only pretending to be bumbling around so that you kids laugh it off and in practice let them continue.

    We don't know yet whether Snowden is both for real and not set up -- we've certainly seen nothing NEW or really damaging out of his info, so far it's JUST publicizing so that even the dolts know, even extending its power, definitely not a bit of rolling back the surveillance state -- but real problem is that you kids don't even suspect nothin', just take surface appearance as "absolute" fact.

    Techdirt's motto: The confusion has become so complete that it's beyond correction.

     

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  7.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Sep 3rd, 2013 @ 10:59am

    It is a classic and how ironic a secret service did not realize it:
    The more employees you have got, the less you get to know about each individual.

    Spying does not let you know a persons aims, it just breaks down the persons actions. Sure, your guess as to identifying problematic people is improved, while identifying the whys behind the actions takes a questioning and is far better.

    There is no 24/7 surveillance and not enough money for endless internal probing of every move from every employee. Improving surveillance and probing can therefore only take you so far. Ultimately, the only way to reduce the risk of infiltration and abuse is to reduce the number of people employed by NSA! If it takes a couple of program to the grave so be it, but reducing funding to NSA looks like it may actually make them better.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
     
    identicon
    out_of_the_blue, Sep 3rd, 2013 @ 11:11am

    What has NOT happened: FIRINGS.

    Biggest leak ever, and NO ONE has been fired over it.

    Similarly, with the 9-11-2001 events, not only biggest intelligence failure ever, but near total failure of North American Defense that supposedly had jet fighters on hot standby for exactly such attempts. And NO ONE was fired. In fact, those responsible for the massive failures were promoted. -- Ever see George Bush angry at the failures and demanding resignations besides answers? No, you did not.

    The one sure sign of prior knowledge is that no one acts surprised or loses their job.

     

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  9.  
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    Loki, Sep 3rd, 2013 @ 11:25am

    While this doesn't directly relate to the NSA, it does give some idea of the sorts of < a href="http://nakedsecurity.sophos.com/2013/09/02/us-army-ignores-shared-pc-login-flaw-asks-soldiers- to-keep-quiet/">problems these agencies face.

     

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  10.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Sep 3rd, 2013 @ 11:27am

    Re: What has NOT happened: FIRINGS.

    Do you have any idea how much it takes to get people fired from the government? You pretty much have to be at the point of standing outside the building you work at, handing out rants against the agency you work at, typed up on government time, printed on government letterhead, before they'll fire you. And that's after they have a long list of documented problems with you.

     

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  11.  
    identicon
    Loki, Sep 3rd, 2013 @ 11:27am

    OK, let's try that again (Techdirt really does need an edit button)

    While this doesn't directly relate to the NSA, it does give some idea of the sorts of < a href="http://nakedsecurity.sophos.com/2013/09/02/us-army-ignores-shared-pc-login-flaw-asks-soldiers- to-keep-quiet/"problems these agencies face.

     

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  12.  
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    Sheogorath (profile), Sep 3rd, 2013 @ 11:38am

    Why does this surprise you, Techdirt?

    To give an example of an internal NSA document:
    "The purpose of [redacted] is to [redacted] with [redacted], [redacted], [redacted], [redacted] and [redacted].

     

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  13.  
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    Jerrymiah, Sep 3rd, 2013 @ 11:40am

    For An Intelligence Agency, The NSA Doesn't Seem To Have Much Idea What's Going On Inside Its Own Walls

    There's a saying that 'Military Intelligence' is an oxymoron. In this case the NSA being run by a bunch of retired military officers is an 'Uber oxymoron.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Sep 3rd, 2013 @ 11:46am

    The more the NSA spies on US citizens, the more attractive it becomes for foreign governments to get an agent inside. It should be easier and more productive that setting up their own network to spy on US citizens. Note, total data gathering will include all the important people in the data collection.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Sep 3rd, 2013 @ 12:43pm

    it knows alright! it is just pretending it doesn't so as to put others off asking questions!

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16.  
    icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), Sep 3rd, 2013 @ 3:23pm

    So this once again proves...
    Those screaming the loudest have the most to hide.

    Lets focus on spying on everyone, instead of getting our own house in order.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  17.  
    icon
    RLParent (profile), Sep 3rd, 2013 @ 5:16pm

    NSA 2016

    Ya know.... with the “war on terror” now in, what , it's 11th years and we only thwarted 54 terrorist plots, I am not feeling real safe... thats less than 5 per year. We need to get this war in high gear so it can function as it was planned. I have some ideas:
    Lets all vote en masse for the “Alexander/Clapper” ticket in 2016. A landslide vote would give them the mandate they need to get this going in the right direction. The first order of business after they are inaugurated would be the following:
    1) pass the “Patriot Act” as a constitutional amendment with explicit wording to allow it to supersede any other amendment, or the constitution itself, if needed. To make this amendment as transparent as possible it should have a disclaimer (in micro-print) that states “we reserve the right to interpret this law, and all other laws, as we see fit without prior notice”... (of course with more legalese than suggested here).
    2) Squash these “homegrown terrorist” that would snuff out your entire family in the blink of an eye by giving the ATF the ability to hire.... say, 1 million Democrats to go house-to-house and confiscate weapons.
    3) The confiscated weapons (especially the assault rifles) should be given to local police forces to arm them to the teeth,... just in case!! ...Of course the donated weapons couldnt be used against innocent citizens, only “targets” as defined by the “Patriot Act Amendment” (see above).
    It makes me feel safer just thinking about it! We should be able to go from less than 5 thwarted terrorist plot per year to maybe over, say 2,776 in the first year alone.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  18.  
    icon
    RLParent (profile), Sep 3rd, 2013 @ 5:24pm

    Re: AC

    ...or you could go into the next frontier....thinking....

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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