Monday, August 19, 2013

The NSA's Data Haul Is Bigger Than You Can Possibly Imagine

The NSA's Data Haul Is Bigger Than You Can Possibly Imagine

The NSA, as intelligence historian Matthew Aid shows, collects so much information online that even its mistakes are enormous. Every day, it actively analyzes the rough equivalent of what’s inside the Library of Congress and “touches,” to use the agency’s term, another 2,990 Libraries’ worth of data. With such a huge haul, even the most infrequent of error rates — one in a hundred thousand, say — still produces terabytes and terabytes of improperly-harvested data. It still means thousands and thousands of people are wrongly caught in the surveillance driftnet.

The NSA’s defenders will point to the many times the agency’s intelligence analysts followed the rules, and got things right. But that misses the point; no one expects these analysts, or the systems they use, to be flawless. The problem is that the surveillance net is so very large that even the most miniscule of imperfections can have outsized impact. And that calls into question whether the NSA’s intelligence-collection efforts have grown too big for their own good.