One of the most famous NSA whistleblowers (or the ‘original NSA whistleblower’), William Binney, said the agency is collecting stupendous amounts of data – so much that it’s actually hampering intelligence operations.
Binney worked for three decades for the intelligence agency, but left shortly after the 9/11 attacks. A program he had developed was scrapped and replaced with a system he said was more expensive and more intrusive, which made him feel he worked for an incompetent employer. Plans to enact the now controversial Patriot Act was the last straw, so he quit. Since then, Binney has frequently criticized the agency and revealed some of its operations hazards and weaknesses. Among these, he alleges:
- The NSA buried key intelligence that could have prevented 9/11;
- The agency’s bulk data collection from internet and telephone communications is unconstitutional and illegal in the US;
- Electronic intelligence gathering is being used for covert law enforcement, political control and industrial espionage, both in and beyond the US;
- Edward Snowden’s leaks could have been prevented. Ironically, Snowden cites Binney as an inspiration.
His greatest insights, however, is that the NSA is ineffective at preventing terrorism because analysts are too swamped with information under its bulk collection programme. Considering Binney’s impeccable track record – he was co-founder and director of the World Geopolitical & Military Analysis at the Signals Intelligence Automation Research Center (SARC), a branch with 6,000 employees – I can only presume he knows what he’s talking about.
The Patriot Act is a U.S. law passed in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Its goals are to strengthen domestic security and broaden the powers of law-enforcement agencies with regards to identifying and stopping terrorists. In effect, the law laxes the restrictions authorities have to search telephone, e-mail communications, medical, financial, and other records. Because a lot of people use web services whose servers are located in the US, this means that the records of people not located or doing business in the US are also spied upon by the NSA. All this information, however, comes at a price: overload. According to the Guardian, the NSA buffers a whooping 21 petabytes a day!
In this flood of information, an NSA analyst will quickly find himself overwhelmed. Queering keywords like “bomb” or “drugs” might prove a nightmare for the analyst in question. It’s impossible not to, considering four billion people — around two-thirds of the world’s population — are under the NSA and partner agencies’ watchful eyes, according to Binney.
“That’s why they couldn’t stop the Boston bombing, or the Paris shootings, because the data was all there,” said Binney for ZDnet.
“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,” he said. “But that doesn’t stop it.”
So, according to Binney, analysts still use rudimentary tools to filter the vast amounts of information the NSA is collecting. With everybody speaking about “big data” and other such buzz phrases, it’s a bit hilarious to think the NSA is actually safe guarding for terrorism by looking for needles in haystacks.
“The Upstream program is where the vast bulk of the information was being collected,” said Binney, talking about how the NSA tapped undersea fiber optic cables.
Basically, the NSA is collecting as much data as it can get its hands on at this point (legally or otherwise… ), but it all seems too greedy for their own good, not to mention public safety. According to Binney, the fact the NSA is collecting this much data isn’t to their advantage, but actually a vulnerability.
“If you have to collect everything, there’s an ever increasing need for more and more budget,” he said. “That means you can build your empire.”
William Binney. Photo: Reuters