Print 26 comment(s) - last by gsosbee.. on Sep 10 at 12:47 PM

But agency claims to only review 0.00004 % (~77,000 GB) per day

Following the leaks of Edward Snowden, who revealed the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) was storing the calling records of virtually all phone-using Americans via metadata grabs, President Barack Obama was backpedalling on Friday, trying to reassure Americans that he remained committed to his promises of "transparency."

I. President's Speech is Followed by NSA Doc Drop

In his speech he remarked:
As a senator, I expressed a healthy skepticism about these programs. And as president, I've taken steps to make sure that they have strong oversight by all three branches of government and clear safeguards to prevent abuse and protect the rights of the American people. But given the history of abuse by governments, it's right to ask questions about surveillance, particularly as technology is reshaping every aspect of our lives.



But the reporters' questions showed a bit of an edge.  One pool reporter at the press conference asked him if he could understand why Americans might not trust him after all the leaks of spying programs.  He attacked that comment stating, "No, I can't," and arguing that he was "comfortable" with the level of spying.

Obama spying
President Obama says he's "comfortable" with his spying on you, so you should be too.
[Image Source: AP]

The President did, however, promise to work with Congress to revise Section 215 (50 USC § 1861) of the USA PATRIOT (Uniting (and) Strengthening America (by) Providing Appropriate Tools Required (to) Intercept (and) Obstruct Terrorism) Act, legal language which in essence grants the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) unchecked, unlimited powers of search and seizure.  Specifically, the language of the law states that it is legal for FBI agents to demand from any citizen "any tangible things," without producing a warrant so long as the agent(s) "specif[ies]" that the order is "for an authorized investigation . . . to protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities." 

And it appears that the NSA was nudged by the President to release a white paper [PDF] on its internet and telephone metadata surveillance operations, which spy on chats, emails, web traffic, and other information ostensibly with the goal of finding and tracking "terrorists".

Much of the document is largely just boilerplate.  The opening section thumps the rising threat of terrorism and the NSA's role in fighting it.  A subsequent section emphasizes that the intended purposes of the agency is to monitor foreign communications (which was apparently overlooked in the indiscriminate grab of U.S. cell phone users' metadata).  The backing legal authority-- Executive Order 12333 (President Ronald Reagan, 1981) and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (FISA) (50 USC Chapter 36) -- is also noted.

II. NSA Appears to Filter After it Harvest Data, Overcollecting on a Massive Scale

Things start to get juicy on page 4.  The NSA writes:

The collection is acquired through compelled assistance from relevant electronic communications service providers.

In other words the NSA demands blanket dumps of data from internet service providers (e.g. Time Warner Inc. (TWX) and Comcast Corp. (CMCSA)), online service firms (e.g. Google Inc. (GOOG) and Microsoft Corp. (MSFT)), and cell phone carriers (e.g. Sprint Nextel Corp. (S) and AT&T, Inc. (T)).  It uses this data to purportedly "acquire foreign intelligence while protecting the civil liberties and privacy of Americans."

NSA spying
The NSA acknowledges it's not supposed to be collecting data on U.S. citizens, but it creatively redefines "collecting" to circumvent that restriction. [Image Source: Nation of Change]

The key is that the NSA's filtering -- "targeting and minimization procedures" -- occurs only after its grabbed, and likely stored.  Filtering up front -- logically akin to innocent until proven guilty -- would be much more difficult, but arguably would to a better job fulfilling the NSA's promise to "protect civil liberties and privacy of Americans" by ensuring that relatively few records regarding American citizens were captured.  While technically more difficult -- perhaps so much so that the NSA would be constrained to monitoring a few thousand individuals at a time -- the approach would also save U.S. taxpayers money by cutting both direct and contracted storage costs.

Unfortunately, the NSA is taking the opposite approach when it comes to data grabs -- guilty until proven innocent.  It first grabs the data, and only discards it after it determines it's not a foreign communication.  This approach represents serious ethical concerns, and also balloons the storage costs of the Agency.  Further exacerbating the issue is that the NSA paper is painfully light on details on how its discarded records are sanitized (they could easily linger in databases for months or even years until overwritten).

NSA Unchained
[Image Source: ACLU]

Even after filtering, some American citizens' communications still remain.  The NSA writes:

For a variety of reasons, including technical ones, the communications of U.S. persons are sometimes incidentally acquired in targeting the foreign entities. For example, a U.S. person might be courtesy copied on an e-mail to or from a legitimate foreign target, or a person in the U.S. might be in contact with a known terrorist target. In those cases, minimization procedures adopted by the Attorney General in consultation with the Director of National Intelligence and approved by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court are used to protect the privacy of the U.S. person. These minimization procedures control the acquisition, retention, and dissemination of any U.S. person information incidentally acquired during operations conducted pursuant to Section 702.

The NSA says it takes additional steps to try to weed out false hits and not dig into innocent communications.

III. Metadata: Is the NSA Tracking Locations?  It Depends on Who You Ask

The paper goes on to discuss the harvesting of so-called "metadata" including location records.  The program -- dubbed the Business Records FISA program (BR FISA) -- launched under President Bush in 2006 and continued on under President Obama in years since.  The program was authorized by 14 separate federal judges.

Highly interesting is that the NSA claims:

The information is known as metadata, and consists of information such as the called and calling telephone numbers and the date, time, and duration of the call, but no user identification, content, or cell site locational data.

The latter denial -- that the NSA has data that allows it to track citizens -- contradicts testimony of both Ed Snowden and ex-NSA-analyst Russell Tice. Both claim the NSA did have that capability and did actively harvest those phone records.

Edward Snowden
Former NSA analyst Ed. Snowden walked away from a posh bureaucratic job spying on Americans to blow the whistle on NSA waste and overreaches. [Image Source: AP]

It also contradicts the filing of a suit [PDF] filed by the The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, alleging that the NSA was collecting location information.  Writes the ACLU attorneys:

The government has acknowledged that it is relying on Section 215 to collect “metadata” about every phone call made or received by residents of the United States. The practice is akin to snatching every American’s address book—with annotations detailing whom we spoke to, when we talked, for how long, and from where. It gives the government a comprehensive record of our associations and public movements, revealing a wealth of detail about our familial, political, professional, religious, and intimate associations.

It's impossible to tell who's telling the truth (ex-NSA agents and the ACLU, or current NSA agents actively involved in the spying) as for all its "openness", the data is only available to NSA agents.

phone metadata
Location metadata from your phone shows precisely where you've been and when.  The NSA claims it's not collecting these forms of metadata, but former agents say otherwise. [Image Source: Pete Warden and Alasdair Allan]

The NSA document describes a similar filtering practice applied to this data set.  An NSA agent must enter a "seed" (e.g. a phone number) to see associated metadata.  The NSA claims this prevents Americans' data from being "collected" (which the NSA defines as the act of retrieval by the analysis), but again it makes no promises that Americans data is not being actively grabbed in bulk and stored, untouched on federal or contractor servers.

IV. NSA Intercepts Upwards of 5-6 Percent of digital global communications

More interesting still, on the topic of exactly how much emails, video chats, etc. the NSA collects, it estimates:

According to figures published by a major tech provider, the Internet carries 1,826 Petabytes of information per day. In its foreign intelligence mission, NSA touches about 1.6% of that. However, of the 1.6% of the data, only 0.025% is actually selected for review. The net effect is that NSA analysts look at only 0.00004% of the world's traffic in conducting their mission -- that's less than one part in a million. Put another way, if a standard basketball court represented the global communications environment, NSA's total collection would be represented by an area smaller than a dime on that basketball court.

Still again, we must examine the staggering -- and costly -- amount of data the NSA is admitting to storing here.  The NSA is admitting that it grabs 29.22 petabytes of data a day, although it only reviews roughly 77,000 gigabytes of that daily.

Consider for a second that services like Netflix, Inc. (NFLX) account for about 1/3 of total internet traffic.  Another 10 to 15 percent of total traffic (based on search analyses) is for pornographic content.  Assuming the NSA is not interest in our Netflix queue or porn.  Then there’re gaming and app marketplaces.

Combine all this together and the things that might interest the NSA -- communications (~3% of aggregate N.A. traffic), filesharing (~12.0%), web browsing (12.7%), and you see that only a little over a quarter (27.7%) of traffic is likely targeted by the NSA in the first place.

The NSA is reading a lot of email, and collecting even more.

In that light the NSA is capturing possibly 6% or more of communications traffic.  

The fact that the NSA is presenting its data grab amount in terms of the total traffic -- most of which it doesn't care about (e.g. streaming entertainment) is pretty misleading, although it's at least a step forward in that you can squeeze the true figures out.

V. Doublespeak Can't Hide That the NSA is Spending Wastefully, Spying on Citizens

The NSA promises:

If NSA is not acting in accordance with law, policy, or procedure, NSA will report through its internal and external intelligence oversight channels, conduct reviews to understand the root cause, and make appropriate adjustments to constantly improve.

But despite its opening up a little after its hand was forced, at the end of the day, only the internal ranks of the NSA truly know what data agents are looking at on a daily basis.  The rest of us must rely on leaks from former agents or high placed government officials to try to gain some sort of perspective.

But from what is known at this point, it's clear the NSA realizes that it's not supposed to collect data on Americans, but has done some creative mind games to convince itself that it's not "collecting" Americans' records, despite harvesting millions of their phone records and thousands of gigabytes of communications on a daily basis.  

This is kind of like a stalker arguing that if they don't look at the person whose house they're camped outside, they're not really stalking them.

The NSA claiming it isn't spying on you if it doesn't look at your data which it demanded from businesses, is kind of like a stalker arguing that he isn't really stalking you unless he looks at you from the bushes where he's hiding outside your house. [Image Source: SLC AD]

If there's one thing clear from the document it's that the NSA is spying on Americans, and that it is spying a lot.  

But the good news is that the Agency is starting to open up about its spying programs to a small degree, and that foothold can hopefully be leveraged to stoke further public awareness of the issue, once the NSA's codespeak is parsed and the true scope of the described spying is made clear to the public.  And hopefully that dialogue can in turn lead to a trimming of wasteful and Orwellian surveillance of law-abiding American citizens.

Sources: President Obama via The Washington Post [transcript], NSA [white paper]

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By amanojaku on 8/13/2013 6:36:19 PM , Rating: 3
But agency claims to only review 0.00004 % (~77,000 GB) per day
Because we don't have the resources to spy on more. Yet. But don't worry, citizens. We have your best interests at heart. And they keys to your email, chats, and anything else electronic.

By StevoLincolnite on 8/13/2013 8:38:44 PM , Rating: 2
The sad part is, I don't even live in the United States and the NSA's spying tactics worries me.

I have a right to my privacy especially when it comes to foreign Nations and especially when it comes to keeping my clients information in regards to their health private too!

Thankfully, my ISP still has an encrypted Email service, but it is worrisome that some of the larger encrypted Email services have shut down due to the NSA's demands.

By MechanicalTechie on 8/13/2013 8:54:12 PM , Rating: 2
It's very worrying that the world’s only super power has become such a corrupt (corporate america owns Capital hill), reckless (openly flouts international laws & conventions to service self-interests) and totalitarian (the government is trying to control everything).

And yet they are seen as the 'good' guys.. talk about amazingly awesome propaganda!!

By Reclaimer77 on 8/13/2013 9:17:24 PM , Rating: 2
"Let me explain to you how this works: you see, the corporations finance Team America, and then Team America goes out... and the corporations sit there in their... in their corporation buildings, and... and, and see, they're all corporation-y... and they make money. "

Tim Robbins

By GulWestfale on 8/13/2013 9:48:54 PM , Rating: 5
a little math:
1.6% of global traffic.
90% of global traffic is video streaming, torrents, porn, and spam.
i would assume that an intelligent program can tell the difference between such things and actual, personal communications. thus, 90% of traffic is discarded.
that leaves 10% of actual communications, if even that. and that is what the NSA looks at. so when we start with that value instead of the entirety of web traffic, that 1.6% suddenly becomes 16%.
so in essence, the NSA wants you to not be upset because they only read 1 in 6 of every email, facebook message, and tweet that is sent in the entire world.


By laviathan05 on 8/14/2013 9:43:40 AM , Rating: 2
Except for things like this:

So ignoring pictures and videos could completely defeat the purpose of snooping anyways.

By Moishe on 8/16/2013 4:40:33 PM , Rating: 2
The Russians should just make porn communications. Short 5 minute porn movies with their Russia babes. Instead of "Ohh baby, that feels sooo Goooood." The babe can say "Follow the white rabbit zero-niner-alpha, baby oohhhh!"

Ding. We ALL win.

By MechanicalTechie on 8/13/2013 9:49:48 PM , Rating: 2
Amazing how a piss-take film like can be so close to reality.

I guess my question is why is the majority of yanks are so larthogic and disinterested by what their government is doing.. not just aboard but at home too. Whats the deal with that?

By dice1111 on 8/14/2013 8:49:56 AM , Rating: 3
IMO, because of years of "nudging" by the government. The majority can't help themselves. They're conditioned too be accepting.

As well, the "spin" or "feel" in the television news is treat this whole program as "it's good for us" as a whole. TV is how the majority of the population get told what their opinions should be... Not critical thinking and healthy discussion.

By conq on 8/14/2013 9:15:23 AM , Rating: 2
Not just that, it's also because are pants-pissing-afraid of dying from a terrorist attack, or dying from anything for that matter.

Welcome to our modern world where for the first time humanity is now spoiled by the fact they no longer worry about survival on a daily basis. There does not seem to be any limit to cost of protecting that indulgence - be it medical, security, or luxury. Can't really blame people for thinking that way though can you? Very few people are "comfortable" with the thought of dying, except maybe for those religious folk.

By M'n'M on 8/14/2013 4:52:16 PM , Rating: 2
Not just that, it's also because are pants-pissing-afraid of dying from a terrorist attack, or dying from anything for that matter.

There's some truth in the above and the prior reason but mostly us "Yanks" aren't complaining is because a lot of us (not me !) don't see it as ever affecting us. It's the old "I've got nothing to hide" (until they do) argument. They just don't seem to grasp the even if today all the spying is being used against the "bag guys", that tomorrow that situation can, and will, change. They haven't worried about how RICO laws, intended for use against organized crime, got used against abortion protesters. They haven't worried about civil asset forfeiture laws because they don't know someone "normal" who has been screwed over ... though that's getting close to becoming part of the general public's perception. You only have to wonder what might have been if NYC had gone ahead w/confiscating cars of people arrested (but not convicted, heck, not even charged) with DUI.

This spying won't get opposed until some later administration abuses the power (and it will eventually happen) and somebody "like me" gets wrongfully caught in the large fishing net being cast.

By Samus on 8/13/2013 10:20:27 PM , Rating: 2
The sad part is, I don't even live in the United States and the NSA's spying tactics worries me.

This should worry everybody.

The fact that governments have spied on others dates back to before the new world broke away from England. So this is all nothing new. What is disturbing is after the United States broke away and founded a new government under the constitution, the revolutionary thing at the time (and still today) were the civil liberties given to the population to be free of the government spying on them.

The NSA claims to collect more "exterior" information from abroad. Sure, that's nothing new, and has been the case since the Cold War, but they are clearly invading the privacy of Americans in America and that is completely unnecessary, and plainly illegal.

By nafhan on 8/14/2013 9:22:20 AM , Rating: 2
The thing is, who knows what they mean by "review"? I would consider automated filtering to be reviewing - which they must be doing at some level to get that .00004%. Taking my data and running it through some process to find out if it's important would definitely be something I'd classify as "review".

Yeah, well...
By bug77 on 8/14/2013 7:29:09 AM , Rating: 2
9/11 attackers were based in the US and Europe. Tell me who should NSA be watching? Or, because nobody has blown a whistle on Germany and France, that means they're not listening on their own citizens or the US? Puhlease...

Try to be realistic people, whether you like it or not, sensors are only becoming cheaper and more ubiquitous. So is data relaying. So you will be watched. On the flip side, whistle blowing becomes less expensive as well, so things like Wikileaks or lone wolves like Snowden will keep abuse in check. That's just the way it is.

RE: Yeah, well...
By GulWestfale on 8/14/2013 8:29:05 AM , Rating: 2
the government that people elected democratically to represent them is who should keep abuse in check, not some solitary guy with a conscience.

RE: Yeah, well...
By bug77 on 8/14/2013 9:35:22 AM , Rating: 2
Well, that largely depends on your definition of "in check".
NSA is made of people, the government is made of people, so there will be abuse no matter what. Just don't pretend to be surprised when you hear about it.

RE: Yeah, well...
By Dr of crap on 8/14/2013 10:10:41 AM , Rating: 2
HA, HA, HA, HA - LMAO ROTFL..... YOU REALLY think an elected official, a politican, will do anything about this ???? You really have the blinders on and the wool pulled over yourself !!!!!

Hey thanks for the laugh!

RE: Yeah, well...
By Moishe on 8/16/2013 4:43:48 PM , Rating: 2
No. The constitution of the US is a contract that defines exactly what the agent of the sovereign people can do. The government is just an agent, an employee of the people. If Katy Perry's agent goes outside of the contract and works against her, she'll be put in jail.

The issue is that the American people do not know the founding relationship between the government and the people. The PEOPLE let it happen, and the people should be the ones who stand up and tell the government to get in line with the contract.

RE: Yeah, well...
By arazok on 8/14/2013 9:50:39 AM , Rating: 1
Well, sensors and relaying are getting cheaper, but by the looks of things becoming a leaker is getting more expensive. A lot of people are watching what’s happening to Snowden and deciding to keep their mouths shut.

And seeing that the NSA has decided to solve the problem by minimizing the number of humans involved in the spying, there will be fewer of them to do it.

The thing about terrorism is that 99% of it happens overseas. This isn’t about protecting Americans. You can do that with border controls and locked cockpits. This is about protecting the ability of America to impose its will throughout the world and destroying terrorist groups who threaten to destabilize friendly governments in unstable regions.

RE: Yeah, well...
By bug77 on 8/14/2013 10:07:51 AM , Rating: 2
"by the looks of things" - always a solid metric to judge things. Especially things like this, where you can pretty much guarantee you don't have the whole picture.

RE: Yeah, well...
By arazok on 8/14/2013 10:25:48 AM , Rating: 2
Unless you run the NSA, you don’t have the whole picture either. It didn’t stop you from injecting your opinion on this.

RE: Yeah, well...
By bug77 on 8/14/2013 10:50:41 AM , Rating: 2
I most certainly did not inject an opinion. I have just asked some questions and made some observation about where the world is headed. Ok, maybe when I said the sites like Wikileaks and guys like Snowden/Deepthroat will keep this in check I inserted an opinion. But I have a hard time imagining how that couldn't be true (at least to a degree).

By Spuke on 8/13/2013 6:33:47 PM , Rating: 2
Sounds like they were given a mandate and they did the best they could to follow the mandate without trampling on our rights as much as possible. The focus should not be on the NSA, IMO, it should be on the people (politicians) that gave them this levity in the first place.

RE: Mandates
By Moishe on 8/16/2013 4:46:58 PM , Rating: 2
Nope. They were given a mandate, but they went too far. Now they're trying to parse words and redefine what they've done to frame it in a better light.

What it amounts to is unconstitutional and unlawful and they should not be above the law. The act of collecting the data is what's wrong, and they should not get away with it.

nsa,fbi don't admit to this:
By gsosbee on 9/10/2013 12:47:09 PM , Rating: 2
USA intel use bio-chem weaponry, DEW, etc., on selective Targets foreign & domestic:

For twenty five years I have been surveilled 24/7 and for ten years I have been tortured by DEW by the fbi assassins in their efforts to imprison or kill me.

Very few credible persons have proof of the atrocities committed by the fbi/cia/dod/doj and the same few are often denied a forum to record same; all mainstream media block my posts and many Indymedia prevent my publications. The general population also shows little interest in holding murderous tyrants of the US government responsible for their crimes because they (the people) benefit in the main from the atrocities committed by their leaders in the name of the people. Nevertheless, my work must continue because *mankind as a whole and in its awakened senses, finds totally unacceptable torture, imprisonment (often by secret courts and in one's own body), assassinations, mass murders, etc. as I and others describe.


My affidavit:


Additional bedtime reading:

federal burro of investigation:

fbi operative tells me: "kill yourself":

We must hold fbi responsible:


fbi operative 'paint me doubtful' proclaims to the world that I am a possible "mass murderer":

We must prosecute fbi:

fbi historically:

The Age of Madness:

A de facto overthrown government , USA:

ubiquitous surveillance
By JB Smith on 8/14/2013 1:40:53 PM , Rating: 1
The Newport News Police and the Virginia State Police have installed yagi-uda laser antennas. These antennas log every computer key stroke every citizen makes. It also enables them to hack into the wireless router in your electric meter, burglar alarm or television set. This enables them to see you in the privacy of your own home. In addition, they have hand held terahertz scanners that enable them to see through your clothes. One Newport News Officer was caught talking about "fat chicks" at the local college over the police radio per the Daily Press. Surveillance issues are not just with the NSA. It’s with all of law enforcement. They plan to make this ubiquitous surveillance so prevalent before anyone knows it exists. Go to or read Safeguards in a World of Ambient Intelligence by Springer. You'll be surprised out just how much they can do now.

"If you mod me down, I will become more insightful than you can possibly imagine." -- Slashdot

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