What's The Evidence Mass Surveillance Works? Not Much

from the details,-details dept

Current and former government officials have been pointing to the terror attacks in Paris as justification for mass surveillance programs. CIA Director John Brennan accused privacy advocates of "hand-wringing" that has made "our ability collectively internationally to find these terrorists much more challenging." Former National Security Agency and CIA director Michael Hayden said, "In the wake of Paris, a big stack of metadata doesn't seem to be the scariest thing in the room."

Ultimately, it's impossible to know just how successful sweeping surveillance has been, since much of the work is secret. But what has been disclosed so far suggests the programs have been of limited value. Here's a roundup of what we know.

An internal review of the Bush administration's warrantless program – called Stellarwind – found it resulted in few useful leads from 2001–2004, and none after that. New York Times reporter Charlie Savage obtained the findings through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit and published them in his new book, Power Wars: Inside Obama's Post–9/11 Presidency:

[The FBI general counsel] defined as useful those [leads] that made a substantive contribution to identifying a terrorist, or identifying a potential confidential informant. Just 1.2 percent of them fit that category. In 2006, she conducted a comprehensive study of all the leads generated from the content basket of Stellarwind between March 2004 and January 2006 and discovered that zero of those had been useful.

In an end note, Savage then added:

The program was generating numerous tips to the FBI about suspicious phone numbers and e-mail addresses, and it was the job of the FBI field offices to pursue those leads and scrutinize the people behind them. (The tips were so frequent and such a waste of time that the field offices reported back, in frustration, "You're sending us garbage.")

In 2014, the President's Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies analyzed terrorism cases from 2001 on, and determined that the NSA's bulk collection of phone records "was not essential to preventing attacks." According to the group's report,

In at least 48 instances, traditional surveillance warrants obtained from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court were used to obtain evidence through intercepts of phone calls and e-mails, said the researchers, whose results are in an online database.

More than half of the cases were initiated as a result of traditional investigative tools. The most common was a community or family tip to the authorities. Other methods included the use of informants, a suspicious-activity report filed by a business or community member to the FBI, or information turned up in investigations of non-terrorism cases.

Another 2014 report by the nonprofit New America Foundation echoed those conclusions. It described the government claims about the success of surveillance programs in the wake of the 9/11 attacks as "overblown and even misleading."

An in-depth analysis of 225 individuals recruited by al-Qaeda or a like-minded group or inspired by al-Qaeda's ideology, and charged in the United States with an act of terrorism since 9/11, demonstrates that traditional investigative methods, such as the use of informants, tips from local communities, and targeted intelligence operations, provided the initial impetus for investigations in the majority of cases, while the contribution of NSA's bulk surveillance programs to these cases was minimal.

Edward Snowden's leaks about the scope of the NSA's surveillance system in the summer of 2013 put government officials on the defensive. Many politicians and media outlets echoed the agency's claim that it had successfully thwarted more than 50 terror attacks. ProPublica examined the claim and found "no evidence that the oft-cited figure is accurate."

It's impossible to assess the role NSA surveillance played in the 54 cases because, while the agency has provided a full list to Congress, it remains classified.

The NSA has publicly discussed four cases, and just one in which surveillance made a significant difference. That case involved a San Diego taxi driver named Basaaly Moalin, who sent $8,500 to the Somali terrorist group al-Shabab. But even the details of that case are murky. From the Washington Post:

In 2009, an FBI field intelligence group assessed that Moalin's support for al-Shabab was not ideological. Rather, according to an FBI document provided to his defense team, Moalin probably sent money to an al-Shabab leader out of "tribal affiliation" and to "promote his own status" with tribal elders.

Also in the months after the Snowden revelations, the Justice Department said publicly that it had used warrantless wiretapping to gather evidence in a criminal case against another terrorist sympathizer, which fueled ongoing debates over the constitutionality of those methods. From the New York Times:

Prosecutors filed such a notice late Friday in the case of Jamshid Muhtorov, who was charged in Colorado in January 2012 with providing material support to the Islamic Jihad Union, a designated terrorist organization based in Uzbekistan.

Mr. Muhtorov is accused of planning to travel abroad to join the militants and has pleaded not guilty. A criminal complaint against him showed that much of the government's case was based on intercepted e-mails and phone calls.

Local police departments have also acknowledged the limitations of mass surveillance, as Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis did after the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013. Federal authorities had received Russian intelligence reports about bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev, but had not shared this information with authorities in Massachusetts or Boston. During a House Homeland Security Committee hearing, Davis said,

"There's no computer that's going to spit out a terrorist's name. It's the community being involved in the conversation and being appropriately open to communicating with law enforcement when something awry is identified. That really needs to happen and should be our first step."

Republished from ProPublica. ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for their newsletter.


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  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 19 Nov 2015 @ 7:26am

    Moot point

    While looking at just how 'effective' such mass spying may, or (as the evidence shows) may not be in finding would-be-terrorists can make for a nice counter-argument against those that claim the programs are effective, it misses a much more important point:

    It does not matter how effective the methods are, if they violate the rights of the public.

    People have used the 'camera in every house' example before, as it really does show how flawed the logic being deployed by the spy agencies is. A camera in every room of every house would drastically cut down on various types of crimes, both preventing crimes from happening, and allowing them to be found and solved, far exceeding the 1.2 percent of 'useful leads' that Stellarwind apparently managed when it was up and running, yet other than the voyeuristic among the government and police force, you'd likely be hard pressed to find anyone who would accept the trade-off.

    Why? Because some trade-offs are simply not worth the cost.

    Even if the programs were effective at their stated purpose, that of preventing terrorist attacks, they would still not be justified given the cost in privacy and rights.

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

  • identicon
    George Orwell, 19 Nov 2015 @ 8:53am

    1984-the book

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 19 Nov 2015 @ 8:57am

    Even though they still don't admit that mass surveillance doesn't work, and many idiot Congressmen still say "it's been proven that it works", without anything to back it up, I think we need to start focusing on the message that mass surveillance is actually DAMAGING our ability to stop terrorist attacks.

    They are creating too many "targets" for themselves and they can't possibly THOROUGHLY monitor all of them at once, which leaves a lot of room for mistakes. The Paris attackers were on EXTREMIST LISTS, and they they were still successful....It's clear they aren't even focusing enough on those extremists.

    Also this is always a good essay to fallback to and show them why it doesn't work:

    https://www.schneier.com/essays/archives/2005/03/why_data_mining_wont.html

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

    • icon
      tqk (profile), 20 Nov 2015 @ 4:38pm

      Re:

      Even though they still don't admit that mass surveillance doesn't work, and many idiot Congressmen still say "it's been proven that it works", ...

      We used to have these things called newspapers who got off on fact checking these bogus claims. Whatever happened to them?

      At least Pro Publica and TD are still out there. I wonder why Congress and the administration and the LEOs never seem to know about stuff like this.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 19 Nov 2015 @ 9:00am

    maybe it's not about prevention

    Mass surveillance doesn't seem to be a useful tool when it comes to prevention. I can see, though, that it could be useful in the aftermath of an attack. Once they know that John Smith committed a terrorist act, the intelligence community can instantly access everything they have swept up that involves Mr. Smith and start tracking down co-conspirators.

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

    • icon
      John Fenderson (profile), 19 Nov 2015 @ 2:17pm

      Re: maybe it's not about prevention

      Perhaps, but that's not the argument being used to shove this spying down everyone's throat. The argument is that it's for prevention.

      Of course, it has to be since ubiquitous spying just to help pick up pieces in an aftermath is even more ridiculous than prevention.

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

      • identicon
        @b, 20 Nov 2015 @ 3:10am

        Re: maybe it's not about conspiracy

        You see the thing about conspiracy is
        There is no evidence to suggest it is
        And the lacking evidence only seems
        To bolster our theory of conspiracy a foot

        But lo'
        There is but one antidote
        So on our foot we do not choke
        When our next Snowden shows us words
        Governments wished voters never heard
        And that is this;

        Spying is a secrets game
        Of lying and of hidden shame
        Because in Bond our leaders trust
        The good spies triumph as they MUST
        Inside this fiction of their mind
        Where the spied upon remain forever blind

        :)

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

      • icon
        tqk (profile), 20 Nov 2015 @ 5:39pm

        Re: Re: maybe it's not about prevention

        Of course, it has to be since ubiquitous spying just to help pick up pieces in an aftermath is even more ridiculous than prevention.

        It does sound like they're far more interested in remaining funded, or increasing their funding, than in doing what they're supposed to be doing (stopping terrorists). Too bad we can't fire the bastards (so far).

        All my employers & clients expected demonstrable results matching what they told me they were paying me to do. Obviously, the system these guys are going by is broken if that's not happening.

        Accountability anyone? Who's watching the watchers? Just us?

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

  • identicon
    Michael, 19 Nov 2015 @ 9:05am

    There's no computer that's going to spit out a terrorist's name

    Has anyone asked Siri?

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 19 Nov 2015 @ 1:45pm

    Works for what?

    You need to realize that the real objective isn't what they claim.

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

  • icon
    GEMont (profile), 20 Nov 2015 @ 11:03am

    Matter of perspective...

    "What's The Evidence Mass Surveillance Works? Not Much"

    That depends entirely on what you expect from mass surveillance.

    If you're talking about catching bad guys, and preventing crimes and harm to the American public, then you would be correct in your answer above - Not Much.

    But if you're talking about rooting out dissent, blackmail, coercion, industrial and commercial espionage, and controlling the narrative by insuring people in high places play by your rules, then there is much evidence that mass surveillance is eminently successful.

    ---

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 20 Nov 2015 @ 1:51pm

    ask Airbus and Enercon if it works
    NSA says it does

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

  • icon
    tqk (profile), 20 Nov 2015 @ 4:27pm

    Follow the money.

    In 2014, the President's Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies analyzed terrorism cases from 2001 on, and determined that the NSA's bulk collection of phone records "was not essential to preventing attacks."

    Follow the money. Do that and you'll find the legacy Imaginary Property gatekeepers (the labels) and the DEA's "War on Drugs" making best use of it. Obama's administration's known this for a year now. What's taking so long?

    I'm sure they'll get around to using it to find terrorists any day now. It's just the haystack keeps on getting bigger and there's all these IP pirates and druggies we need to sort out first. Why? It's where the money is! We gotta keep the prisons profitable, and Hollywood pays the bills too ("gets us re-elected").

    Yeah, pull the other one. With these guys in control, who needs enemies? Why do these people keep on getting re-elected?

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

    • icon
      GEMont (profile), 20 Nov 2015 @ 11:03pm

      Re: Follow the money.

      " Why do these people keep on getting re-elected? "

      They don't get re-elected.

      The "vote" is a farce. A placebo.

      Simple Logic: if someone was to be voted into office who actually wanted to clean up dodge, how could the bad guys prevent the exposure of their corruption, short of assassination?

      Simple Answer: by making sure that nobody honest could ever be voted into office, by controlling the vote process from start to finish.

      Problem solved.

      That's why I think the next POTUS has not yet been introduced to the public, and won't be until around 2-3 months before the actual "election" takes place.

      In order to make the "Vote" look real, they have fielded only clowns, who nobody in their right mind would vote for.

      When they unveil the next POTUS as a candidate, that person will, by comparison to the current clown candidates, be a shoe-in, so everyone will assume that everyone else voted for the "Ringer". In this way, a pre-ordained landslide vote for the Fake Democrat POTUS will appear to be 100% legitimate to the public - again.

      ---

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


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