NSA Is Collecting Any Data That It Can

Andrew FishmanMy first wife was a privacy fanatic. And like most privacy fanatics I’ve know, she had nothing worth hiding. She had a boring life. (She married me!) I, on the other hand, have lived a very colorful life — often in a very public way. So I’ve long ago given up on the delusion that I had much in terms of privacy. I find myself in a curious position of now living a very boring life, but not caring too much about this issues on a personal level. But in terms of politics, I care a great deal.

Andrew Fishman and Glenn Greenwald wrote a really good article this last week, Overwhelmed NSA Surprised to Discover Its Own Surveillance “Goldmine” on Venezuela’s Oil Executives. What it shows is that the NSA collects so much data that it doesn’t even know what it has. It reminds me of the ozone hole.

In general, it is not a good idea to collect data just to be collecting it.

NASA was collecting data of total column ozone levels in Antarctica. The geophysicist Joe Farman and his little team from Cambridge were studying ozone levels at the south pole and they noticed a huge decrease. But they were really skeptical. They knew that NASA had been studying this stuff for decades. Why hadn’t anyone published it?! Well, the reason was a kind of computer bug. The scientists at NASA wrote some code that said, “If ozone levels get below a certain level, put it aside for humans to look at it.” The humans never looked. After “Large Losses of Total Ozone in Antarctica Reveal Seasonal ClOx/NOx Interaction” came out, NASA found that they had an enormous amount of data that showed the ozone hole and its increasing trend.

In general, it is not a good idea to collect data just to be collecting it. This is something I’ve ranted about for years with video stores that want your Social Security number. Why? No reason. They are just collecting every kind of data they can think of — just in case. But with the NSA, you have to wonder, shouldn’t they be doing targeted investigations? It isn’t a good idea to just collect everything they can so later they can say, “Oh yeah, the information on that terrorist attack was in our archives.”

Glenn GreenwaldBut what really bugs me is that in this case, the NSA has been collecting data that can only be described as corporate espionage. Ever wonder about that? Why we hate certain questionable regimes like Venezuela while we love truly horrible regimes like Saudi Arabia? It’s all about our government working in the interests of huge corporations. ExxonMobile is making billions in Saudi Arabia. But ExxonMobile was thrown out of Venezuela. Thus: Venezuela is bad.

At least the NSA isn’t spying on us, right? Well, no. The NSA says that it only collects metadata — basically the public information of our email and phonecalls. But that means nothing. This revelation about corporate espionage isn’t the first. Previously, the NSA was caught spying on Brazil’s oil company, Petrobras. Before that, the NSA said, “The department does ***not*** engage in economic espionage in any domain, including cyber.”

It seems that the NSA sees part of its job as being lying to the American people. So I think we have to assume that the NSA does, in fact, read every email we send — that they know exactly what you read on every website and when. Which, as I’ve noted, is probably not a big deal. But it does mean that if the government ever decides it doesn’t like you, you are toast. But fear not: this is the behavior of a dying empire. Your great great grandchildren won’t have to worry about the NSA, because the United States of America will be a backwater, having lost relevance because it focused on maintaining its power by any means necessary rather than improving the lives of its people.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

21 thoughts on “NSA Is Collecting Any Data That It Can

  1. If the argument is “why collect data when there is no reason to” I can agree.

    But I cannot agree that NSA reads all of our emails because there literally is not enough time for the number of people who work there. A couple of years ago I went to an e-discovery conference for work. One of the big topics of discussion was the sheer volume of paperwork generated by even a small firm in emails alone. Then you get to the big companies and you are talking about a single case like the Goldman Sachs case running into the literal billions of pages to wade through. Taking a big case like the mortgage settlement that something like 47 states were involved in along with the what was it? Ten banks? And you hit the trillions in documents.

    So the NSA, unsurprisingly, vacuums up a huge amount of data that they don’t do a lot with because no one has that kind of time. But you can find that the guys check to see if their new girlfriend is still talking to her ex.

    Or possibly they use it to spy on businesses that might not be as friendly to the US businesses. Which is another reason why a Chiliean style pension for the average citizen would be a nightmare.

    • The problem is that (I am now assuming) they archive everything. Then, when someone because powerful leading anti-war demonstrations, then they read it and use it to harass and discredit him.

      But even before that, people don’t need to read the files. Computers can do a good job filtering out a great deal of stuff.

      • I worry if they will start to just buy the data. As of right now, in theory, the government has to go get a warrant. But if the government buys it the issues of probable cause go away because it is our data to do whatever that branch wants with it since it is now owned outright. And it is easy to buy it-you just have to go hit up Google or Twitter with a check with enough zeros behind the number.

        Of course now is little different then say what they did with MLK, Jr. I do wonder how much of Anthony Weiner’s downfall was due to someone wanting him gone and predicting, based on the publicly available information about him to build a profile on what he would do, how he would react to something like that.

        The sad thing is that I can believe one side of our political spectrum would be perfectly fine with using this information. Yet our side apparently never does despite those temptations being there.

        • The reason I think the NSA is archiving the data is (1) because they can; and (2) because they never are held accountable for lying. But they may not.

          It is certainly true that Weiner had many enemies. Although they seem mostly to have been on the left because he was (ironically) a dick.

          Excellent point about MLK. But imagine if they had known everything about him for the years before he became known as a “threat.”

          • Of course they are storing it. The US government throws everything into a giant warehouse. While not quite the same thing as Warehouse 13, I have watched shows on the massive amount of data that the government collects and stores all over the US so the NSA is no different. I just don’t think they pay that much attention to it though unless it is a girlfriend or they get a major order from up on high that they have no choice but to comply with.

            I guess for me it is not that scary since I am used to the idea of being completely and totally tracked by certain local agencies.

            • Oh, that sounds interesting! I saw a recent Pearls Before Swine where Rat was writing a new children’s book based on Curious George; it’s called Stalker George. Anything that good?!

              • Well since I am not sure which part you are referring to:

                Warehouse 13 is a great show. One day, when you are done catching up to all other stuff we keep recommending to you, all five seasons will be on Amazon Prime and you can enjoy all of them. It is a little weaselly at times but makes for a fun weekend binge.

                Shows on the government storage of data is pretty neat because they went into the details of how to preserve some of this incredible stuff that normally would be lost-like old copies of films from back in the day when it was put on nitrate. Or how to properly preserve old maps that are so delicate a sneeze could destroy them. If nothing else that the modern world has given us is access to this information via a form that will no longer damage it. But they also point out that there is an enormous, truly enormous amount of information. That is why they usually turn to the public to help categorize this stuff and why you hear about X document thought lost being found although that happens more in England than here because England has way more old stuff lying around then we do.

                Being tracked by certain agencies…if you are a politician who gets anywhere in MC you get tracked by the local sheriff. It is not something that we actually do anything about but it is kind of well known by politicos that he will be doing it. Recently he is waiting to find out if he is going to get into trouble with the federal judge who’s wife he was tracking in an attempt to force a recusal. *shrugs* Remind me one of these decades to tell you about what happened when the county attorney gave him his head.

                • I was referring to you being followed. So there is some sheriff who snoops around anyone of any prominence in local politics — kind of like J Edgar Hoover? That’s amazing! Is the thing with the federal judge in the papers?

                  • Here is the short version:


                    3. Snow talks wife, confidential informant, April 23, 2015

                    With Arpaio on the witness stand, Judge Snow takes to direct questioning of the sheriff about two purported investigations: one involving a confidential informant named Dennis Montgomery and the other involving Snow’s wife. It is the first public confirmation that the judge’s family had been ensnared in an Arpaio investigation.

                    Arpaio confirms that the judge’s wife was involved in private investigator’s probe. He testifies that an e-mail tipster claimed to have met Snow’s wife at a restaurant, and that Snow’s wife said the judge “wanted to do everything to make sure I’m not elected.”

                    While the issue on Snow’s wife has all but dissolved, Montgomery has since become a focal point in the hearings.

                    Sheriff’s officials say their involvement with Montgomery was rooted in law enforcement. Montgomery claimed that he could prove the CIA had harvested banking information from tens of thousands of Maricopa County residents. But his documents later indicate that Montgomery was trying to prove an anti-Arpaio collusion between Snow, plaintiffs’ attorneys on the underlying racial-profiling case, and various federal government officials.

                    • Oh, I should have known. Everyone’s favorite sheriff. It sounded over the top, so it had to be him. Well, maybe not. I’ve seen some pretty crazy people elsewhere in that job. It seems to attract them.

                    • What’s amazing is that we live in a society in which such people are not shamed out of polite society. Or at least our media will still put him on the TV.

                    • Part of it is the fact he will go after people if they cross him. The other thing is the same reason that the media pays attention to the Republicans-it gets ratings. Arpaio has always been very good with his media empire and makes for good and lazy copy.

                    • It probably would have horrified the founding fathers if they knew about our infotainment industry.

                    • Yeah. But it would have horrified most of them that women and blacks got the right to vote…

                    • They were aware women could have the right to vote if they met the property requirements, New Jersey showed that.

                      Probably right on the non-white voting like blacks, asians, natives…

                    • Thomas Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft: the first couple of liberty. British, both.

                    • And yet it took until 1928 for women to get full suffrage in England. Of course universal male suffrage took until 1918 in the same country.


                    • Yeah, I’ve always found it curious that England could be so liberal in some ways yet so conservative in others. What mostly makes America bad is that we are such greedy bastards. That’s what slavery was mostly about. Not sure why women were kept out of politics for so long, except maybe that they wouldn’t be as inclined to be pro-greed.

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