Almost on the second anniversary of the Edward Snowden revelations, another (in)famous NSA whistleblower has again spoken up. This comes at a pivotal juncture in the legislative calendar as contentious debate about surveillance rages over the impending sunset of some of the Patriot Act.
It has long been an argument of the civil liberties crowd that bulk data gathering was counter-productive, if not counter- intuitive. The argument was couched in language suggesting that to “collect it all”, as the then NSA director James Clapper famously decried, was to, in effect, gather nothing, as the choking amounts of information collected would be so great as to be unable to be analyzed effectively.
This assertion is supported by William Binney, a founder of Contrast Security and a former NSA official, logging more than three decades at the agency. In alluding to what he termed “bulk data failure”, Binney said that an analyst today can run one simple query across the NSA’s various databases, only to become immediately overloaded with information.
With about four billion people (around two-thirds of the world’s population) under the NSA and partner agencies’ watchful eyes, according to his estimates, there is far too much data being collected.
“That’s why they couldn’t stop the Boston bombing, or the Paris shootings, because the data was all there… The data was all there… the NSA is great at going back over it forensically for years to see what they were doing before that. But that doesn’t stop it.”
Binney is in a position to know, earning his stripes during the terrorism build up that culminated with the 9/11 World Trade Center bombing in 2001. He left just days after the draconian legislation known as the USA Patriot Act was enacted by Congress on the heels of that attack. One of the reasons which prompted his leaving was the scrapping of a surveillance system on which he long worked, only to be replaced by more intrusive systems.
It is interesting to note here that Edward Snowden, in alluding to Binney, said he was inspired by Binney’s plight, and that this, in part, prodded him to leak thousands of classified documents to journalists. Little did Binney know that his work was to be but the tip of the iceberg in a program that eventually grew to indiscriminately “collect it all.”
What is worrisome is the complicity with the bulk data collection by dozens of private companies – maybe as many as 72. Yet this type of collection pales in comparison to that of the “Upstream” program in which the NSA tapped into undersea fiber optic cables. With the cooperation of Britain’s GCHQ, the NSA is able to sift more than 21 petabytes a day.
Gathering such enormous amounts of information is expensive and ineffective, according to Binney. But it gets lawmakers attention in a way that results in massive increases in NSA budgets. Binney warns that,
“They’re taking away half of the Constitution in secret.”
President Obama has presided over this agency’s land grab, and has endorsed it, often to referring to Upstream as a “critical national security tool.” His feckless approach to the spying build up is the reason for its proliferation, and is why Congress meanders rudderless in attempts to curtail it.
The President’s anti-privacy stance is being “rewarded” by repudiation among members of his own party, and is reflected in their rejecting his latest legacy-building, pet piece of legislation – the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). But their constituents would be better served by producing legislation that would restore Constitutional rights trampled on by the NSA.