29 May 2015

The NSA is "drowning in information"

This article touches upon my thoughts about the vacuum cleaner that is NSA communications collection. That is, I'll buy that the NSA is collecting everything: phone calls, faxes, e-mails, text messages. I'll buy that the NSA has multiple storage locations around the U.S. where this mind-bogglingly vast amount of data is being stored. And I'll buy that they have some artificially intelligent search and analysis capacity, analagous to but even surpassing that of Google's often creepily accurate predictive typing feature, which draws out communications relevant to what they're looking for.

But it all comes down to the volume. The NSA isn't merely gathering all the haystacks in its search for needles, as the article suggests. It's gathering haystacks that are being delivered via firehoses. Via Niagara Falls. Sure, the NSA has a shop-vac that handles the volume, but how much analysis can they really do? Which raises two questions. One, how effectively can they find actual threats? And two, how much American privacy can they really violate?

So I've been and I continue to be ambivalent about the NSA's mass surveillance. On the one hand, I do strongly believe that the collection of cell phone signals via StingRay-type technology is a straightforward example of an unconstitutional search and seizure, a 21st-century general warrant. This is something we fought a war over and then abolished the use of in the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. But on the other hand, I've always been a fan of "security by obscurity" -- you'd piss your pants laughing at me if I told you where I store all my computer passwords -- and I honestly don't see how the NSA can effectively catch the people whom it seeks to catch through this mass data collection. They're looking for a needle in a continent of haystacks. They're looking for a bubble in the foam going over Niagara Falls.

It's homeopathic policing!

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