Essays / Notes & Observations / Opinion Piece

“We try to collect everything”: Snowden, CIA and NSA

By Simon Holberton

Well before Edward Snowden lifted the veil on the National Security Agency’s (NSA) surveillance of the global internet the beans had been spilled by Ira (Gus) Hunt, Chief Technology Officer for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

In a little-noticed speech (with the honourable exception of the Huffington Post) on March 20 to an audience of executives from communication technology companies in New York, Hunt spoke about ‘Big Data’ and the needs of his organisation for simpler, more intuitive, ways to interrogate it.

Seal of the C.I.A. - Central Intelligence Agen...

Seal of the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States Government (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“I want to get out of search,” he said. “Search is so broken in this petabyte world.”

A petabyte is a very big number: a one followed by 15 zeros, 1,000,000,000,000,000.

Hunt’s job for the past four or so years has been to tool-up the CIA for what he calls the “social mobile cloud”.  For the CIA, and NSA which provides the signals intelligence for CIA analysis, “it’s all about the data”.

And there’s an awful lot of it about. Hunt estimated that Google houses 100 petabytes of data on its three million servers. Facebook stores more than 300 petatbytes. Indeed, Facebook holds 35 per cent of the world’s digital photography. Twitter generates 125 billion tweets a year (4,500 a second) but is dwarfed by global text messaging: 6.1 trillion a year (193,000 texts a second). US cell (mobile) telephony amounts to 2.2 trillion minutes a year (19 minutes per person per day). *

“This social mobile cloud thing has completely altered the flow of information on the entire planet,” Hunt said, observing later: “We fundamentally try to collect everything and hang on to it forever.” And: “It’s nearly within our grasp to compute on all human generated information.”

Remember, this is pre-Snowden’s revelations, and Hunt, one of the top managers of the CIA, said this in a public forum. But of particular note was his conclusion. Hunt said that technological innovation in computer science was moving faster than the government or the law could keep up.

“The legal system is woefully behind. You should be asking, what are your rights and who owns your data.”

Indeed, we should, though it’s a little rich hearing that from a senior CIA official who is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to improve the US government’s ability to read our email and monitor our internet behaviour. However, one doesn’t want to be churlish; at least he raised the issue.

Which is more than can be said for president Obama who has been playing catch up ever since Snowden dropped his bombshell on June 7. Like most modern American presidents, Mr Obama has found it more congenial to exercise the virtually untrammelled right of presidents to make war and kill foreigners (or aliens, as they quaintly refer to us) rather than exercise his limited authority within the borders of America. NSA intelligence is no doubt the source for the lists of people Mr Obama has killed by drones.

National Security Agency Seal

National Security Agency Seal (Photo credit: DonkeyHotey)

Obama is probably the first president who really understands the work of the NSA, beyond the obvious fact that they listen to foreigners’ telephone calls. His election campaigns were advised by executives from Google and Facebook. They explained the myriad ways we reveal ourselves on the internet and how Obama could exploit this data for electoral success. Obama therefore ‘gets’ what NSA/CIA want to do with the data stored by Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, Yahoo, and the telephone companies, and he lets them get on with ‘mining’ that data.

What’s really surprising, though, is that Obama, as a former constitutional law professor, has created a latter day Star Chamber in the form of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court . Under Mr Obama’s presidency the FISA court has evolved into a secret Supreme Court on matters of 4th amendment rights and possibly much else. Astonishingly for a country that trumpets the rule of law, the FISA court’s proceedings are secret, its judgements are secret, and there are no rights of appeal.

Moreover, the FISA court exercises Supreme Court-like powers to interpret and rule on the very laws which Congress passed to create it. For the United States, which is founded on law and whose constitution has been a beacon of hope to many, this is truly shocking. Secret justice is anathema to the open society. The events of 9/11 were horrific, but did they really justify this? With no disrespect to the victims, it seems that their deaths have served well the interests of the espiocracy in that gullible politicians have bought espiocrats’ claim of promised omniscience, in spite of NSA’s well-documented failures in the case of Osama Bin Laden.**

Mr Obama was at his disingenuous best when he announced on August 9 that he would introduce reforms into NSA domestic snooping. He released two documents which sought to offer a sound legal basis for NSA activities. He also promised a committee would be established to assess secrecy/privacy issues and that the operations of the FISA court would be enhanced by the appointment of an adversarial counsel who would make the case against surveillance in certain cases. The New York Times had it about right when it said these measures amount to no more than “tinkering around the edges” of the issue.`

There is (at least) one other aspect of the Snowden affair that’s worthy of note and that is the way the revelations about NSA and its relationship with Google, Facebook and the rest of the big technology/information companies has eroded our trust in them. As James Fallows observed in The Atlantic, it is one thing for Google to mine our data for private gain; it’s another thing altogether for Google to provide a data feed of our communication to NSA. (For Google read Apple, Facebook and all the rest.)

Fallows was commenting on a piece by John Naughton in The Observer (misattributed to The Guardian). Naughton wrote that “no US-based internet company can be trusted to protect our privacy or data. The fact is that Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Amazon, Apple and Microsoft are all integral components of the US cyber-surveillance system. Nothing, but nothing, that is stored in their “cloud” services can be guaranteed to be safe from surveillance or from illicit downloading by employees of the consultancies employed by the NSA. That means that if you’re thinking of outsourcing your troublesome IT operations to, say, Google or Microsoft, then think again.”

Headquarters of the NSA at Fort Meade, Marylan...

Headquarters of the NSA at Fort Meade, Maryland.   (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But, as others have noted, there is no simple way to avoid US snooping. As James Bamford, the doyen of security journalists, wrote earlier this month in the New York Review of Books virtually the whole of the world’s internet traffic is routed through the US telephone system in addition to a third of all international voice telephony. One of the key ‘choke’ points is an AT&T data switching centre in San Francisco. NSA has installed a ‘beam splitter’ that enables it to make a mirror image of all data traveling the light beam of the fibre optic cable.

In the curiously paranoid world in which the CIA’s avuncular Gus Hunt works they think they need to know everything.  As he told his audience in March, out of the petabytes of data only 5k might be relevant. The problem for the espiocrats is they don’t know which is the relevant 5k. It is the old problem of ex ante and ex post. They don’t, and can’t, know future value of the data they collect. They can’t connect the dots they don’t have. And you can’t task for data you don’t know you need. “Global coverage requires global data. So we fundamentally try to collect everything and hang on to it forever.”

NSA/CIA works on the principle that “more is always better”. Sure, “signal to noise” only gets worse with scale, but the promise the espiocracy has sold the politicians in Washington is that they they can stop theorising (making models) about threats and know with certainty, who, where, when, how and why. In short, they are claiming to have discovered the Philosopher’s Stone of espionage. (One’s reminded of Mark Twain’s definition of a liar: a man pointing at a hole in the ground and claiming it contains gold.)

“Models force you to make assumptions up front which are biased by the current view. We want out of [i.e. to eradicate] bias to achieve understanding of what’s happening in the world.”

Whether bias-free understanding will be attained by this extraordinary undertaking is moot. It seems to assume that terrorists use email and mobile phones, put their terrorist mission plans on Facebook (having ticked all the relevant privacy boxes), and post their ‘how to’ instruction videos for bomb making on YouTube.  Really? Come on, Mr Hunt, who are you kidding? You’re not watching them; you are watching us.


*All data in this paragraph is from Hunt’s presentation.

** James Bamford reports in his Body of Secrets (Anchor, 2002) that NSA officials used to play recordings of Bin Laden talking to his mother to visiting Congressional leaders to demonstrate NSA’s capability and grasp on what the ‘bad guys’ were up to. We know how well that worked.


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