Latest Revelations Show How Collecting All The Haystacks To Find The Needle Makes The NSA's Job Harder

from the and-makes-us-all-less-safe dept

Yet another post about the latest NSA revelations about collecting buddy lists and email contacts. As we'd mentioned in the original post, the story noted that this data collection was at times overwhelming. Here's the Washington Post's report on this point:
The volume of NSA contacts collection is so high that it has occasionally threatened to overwhelm storage repositories, forcing the agency to halt its intake with “emergency detasking” orders. Three NSA documents describe short-term efforts to build an “across-the-board technology throttle for truly heinous data” and longer-term efforts to filter out information that the NSA does not need.

Spam has proven to be a significant problem for NSA — clogging databases with data that holds no foreign intelligence value. The majority of all e-mails, one NSA document says, “are SPAM from ‘fake’ addresses and never ‘delivered’ to targets.”

In fall 2011, according to an NSA presentation, the Yahoo account of an Iranian target was “hacked by an unknown actor,” who used it to send spam. The Iranian had “a number of Yahoo groups in his/her contact list, some with many hundreds or thousands of members.”

The cascading effects of repeated spam messages, compounded by the automatic addition of the Iranian’s contacts to other people’s address books, led to a massive spike in the volume of traffic collected by the Australian intelligence service on the NSA’s behalf.

After nine days of data-bombing, the Iranian’s contact book and contact books for several people within it were “emergency detasked.”
Here's a slide from the leaked NSA presentation, in which it urges people to be more careful about what kind of data it collects via this program, saying they're trying to "store less of the wrong data" and "shift the collection philosophy at the NSA" to "memorialize what you need" from "order one of everything off the menu and eat what you want."
This is the very same NSA which is led by Keith Alexander, whose unofficial motto has been described as "collect it all." At times, Alexander has argued in public that "you need the haystack to find the needle."

Of course, that's bogus, and the data deluge discussed in this program demonstrated why. Collecting it all makes it harder to find the right information. Piling more hay on the haystack doesn't make it easier to find the needle, it makes it harder. That's one of many reasons why we're so concerned about these bulk data collection programs. Not only do they rarely seem to turn up useful information, but they also seem to better obscure important information by flooding the system with bogus data.
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Filed Under: haystacks, keith alexander, needles, nsa, nsa surveillance, too much information


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  1. icon
    Baldaur Regis (profile), 15 Oct 2013 @ 9:12am

    How does the NSA know that this putative 'spam' was not, in fact, a coded general call to jihad? To protect us - the ignorant masses of Americans - the brave cyber-warriors of the NSA MUST read each and every spam.
    Press release from the American Aspirin Manufacturers Association, intercepted by SIGINT 14-10-2013 SECRET/ULTRA/SI/SSW

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