Data Mining on a Massive Scale

On May 11 and May 12, 2006, USA Today spelled out the dimensions of the NSA data mining operations.  It claimed that the database that was being created by the NSA thanks to the cooperation of the telecommunications companies was the “largest…ever assembled in the world” and that it could be accessed not just by the NSA, but by the CIA, the FBI and the DEA.

It was not just the NSA that accumulated the records of telecommunications companies.  Other federal and local police bought Americans’ phone records from private data brokers who had in some cases tricked phone companies into violating laws, enabling law enforcement to dispense with subpoenas or warrants. 

On June 21, 2006, private data brokers testified before Congress about the tricks and other methods they used to get private information, including phone records, often by duping customer service representatives at telephone and credit companies.  “Brokers have…broken into online accounts, in some cases guessing passwords that were the names of pets” (Boston Globe, June 22, 2006).  At the same hearing an FBI agent acknowledged that he had personally requested phone records from data brokers without warrants or subpoenas.

Wireless carriers were also implicated in the vast surveillance project.  The FBI reportedly has “unfettered access” to Verizon’s wireless network and many of the 3,000 or so wireless companies operating in the US may have been induced to cooperate with the government either voluntarily, or by being issued a National Security Letter complete with a gag order (London Review of Books, August 14, 2008).

Neither the NSA nor any other government agency has ever been held accountable for illegal warrantless surveillance.  Since the spying operation became public, the NSA has been allowed to continue its data accumulation and data mining operations with virtual impunity.  On June 17, 2009 the New York Times reported that from 2006 until the time of writing the NSA had used a secret program codenamed Pinwale to systematically archive and mine meta databases containing millions of domestic and foreign email messages – including those to and from former President Bill Clinton - regardless of whether they had anything to do with an investigation. 

A day after President Obama was sworn into office, Russell Tice, a former analyst for the NSA who had monitored US journalists and news agencies, told MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann that spying by the agency involved a massive dragnet.  “The National Security Agency had access to all Americans’ communications – faxes, phone calls, and their computer communications…It didn’t matter whether you were in Kansas, in the middle of the country, and you never made foreign communications at all.  They monitored all communications.” 

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At a later appearance on Olbermann’s show, Tice claimed that the NSA was combining information from phone wiretaps with data from credit card and other financial records for data mining purposes. 

“This could sit there for ten years and then potentially it marries up with something else and ten years from now they get put on a no-fly list and they, of course, won’t have a clue why.  This is garnered from algorithms that have been put together to try to just dream up scenarios that might be information that is associated with how a terrorist could operate.  And once that information gets to the NSA, and they start to put it through the filters there…and they start looking for word recognition, if someone just talked about the daily news and mentioned something about the Middle East they could easily be brought to the forefront of having that little flag put by their name that says ‘potential terrorist’” (Wired, January 23, 2009).

This appears to be how intelligence gathering is done in the age of Total Information Awareness – make the haystack as big as possible in order to find the needle.

Further reading: Electronic Frontier Foundation's report on the FBI's "Investigative Data Warehouse"

Image courtesy Marksenizer

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