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.

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Filed Under: collect it all, metadata, nsa, nsa surveillance


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  1. identicon
    Griff, 6 Nov 2013 @ 5:14am

    Tradeoffs

    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.

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