NSA Spying Doesn’t Work to Prevent Terrorism
William Binney knows as much about spying as anyone alive.
Binney – a 32-year National Security Agency veteran – is the former head of the NSA’s global digital data gathering program, and a very highly-regarded cryptographer.
Binney told Daily Caller yesterday that the spying “dragnet” being carried out by the government is useless:
Daily Caller: There’s been some talk about the authorities having a recording of a phone call Tamerlan Tsarnaev had with his wife. That would be something before the bombing?
Binney: Before the bombing, yes. [This information comes from former FBI counterrorism agent Tim Clemente.]
Daily Caller: Then how would they have that audio?
Binney: Because the NSA recorded it.
Daily Caller: But apparently the Russians tipped off the FBI, which then did a cursory interview and cleared him. So how were they recording him?
Binney: Because the Russians gave a warning for him as a target. Once you’re on a list, they start recording everything. That’s what I’m saying.
Daily Caller: So why didn’t they prevent the bombing?
Binney: Once you’ve recorded something, that doesn’t mean they have it transcribed. It depends on what they transcribe and what they do with the transcription.
Daily Caller: So it seems logical to ask: Why do we need all of this new data collection when they’re not following up obvious leads, such as an intelligence agency calling and saying you need to be aware of this particular terrorist?
Binney: It’s sensible to ask, but that’s exactly what they’re doing. They’re making themselves dysfunctional by collecting all of this data. They’ve got so much collection capability but they can’t do everything.
Daily Caller: So what are they doing with all of this information? If they can’t stop the Boston marathon bombing, what are they doing with it?
Binney: Well again, they’re putting an extra burden on all of their analysts. It’s not something that’s going to help them; it’s something that’s burdensome. There are ways to do the analysis properly, but they don’t really want the solution because if they got it, they wouldn’t be able to keep demanding the money to solve it. I call it their business statement, “Keep the problems going so the money keeps flowing.” It’s all about contracts and money.
Daily Caller: But isn’t data collection getting easier and processing speeds getting faster and data collection cheaper? Isn’t the falling price one of the reasons they can collect data at this massive level?
Binney: Yes, but that’s not the issue. The issue is, can you figure out what’s important in it? And figure out the intentions and capabilities of the people you’re monitoring? And they are in no way prepared to do that, because that takes analysis. That’s what the big data initiative was all about out of the White House last year. It was to try to get algorithms and figure out what’s important and tell the people what’s important so that they can find things. The probability of them finding what’s really there is low.
Similarly, Fortune notes that the NSA’s “big data” strategy is ineffective:
The evidence for big data is scant at best. To date, large fields of data have generated meaningful insights at times, but not on the scale many have promised. This disappointment has been documented in the Wall Street Journal, Information Week, and SmartData Collective.
According to my firm’s research, local farmers in India with tiny fields frequently outperform — in productivity and sustainability — a predictive global model developed by one of the world’s leading agrochemical companies. Why? Because they develop unique planting, fertilizing, or harvesting practices linked to the uniqueness of their soil, their weather pattern, or the rare utilization of some compost. There is more to learn from a local Indian outlier than from building a giant multivariate yield prediction model of all farms in the world. The same is true for terrorism. Don’t look for a needle in a giant haystack. Find one needle in a small clump of hay and see whether similar clumps of hay also contain needles.
You need local knowledge to glean insights from any data. I once ran a data-mining project with Wal-Mart (WMT) where we tried to figure out sales patterns in New England. One of the questions was, “Why are our gun sales lower in Massachusetts than in other states, even accounting for the liberal bias of the state?” The answer: There were city ordinances prohibiting the sale of guns in many towns. I still remember the disappointed look of my client when he realized the answer had come from a few phone calls to store managers rather than from a multivariate regression model.
So, please, Mr. President, stop building your giant database in the sky and quit hoping that algorithm experts will generate a terrorist prevention strategy from that data. Instead, rely on your people in the field to detect suspicious local patterns of behavior, communication, or spending, then aggregate data for the folks involved and let your data hounds loose on these focused samples. You and I will both sleep better. And I won’t have to worry about who is lurking in the shadows of my business or bedroom.
Likewise, Nassim Taleb writes:
Big data may mean more information, but it also means more false information.
Because of excess data as compared to real signals, someone looking at history from the vantage point of a library will necessarily find many more spurious relationships than one who sees matters in the making; he will be duped by more epiphenomena. Even experiments can be marred with bias, especially when researchers hide failed attempts or formulate a hypothesis after the results — thus fitting the hypothesis to the experiment (though the bias is smaller there).
This is the tragedy of big data: The more variables, the more correlations that can show significance. Falsity also grows faster than information; it is nonlinear (convex) with respect to data (this convexity in fact resembles that of a financial option payoff). Noise is antifragile. Source: N.N. Taleb
If big data leads to more false correlations, then mass surveillance may lead to more false accusations of terrorism.
For civil libertarians, all terrorist attacks come in two equally predictable parts.
First, there is the terrorist attack itself — a sad reality of our modern life. Second, comes the inevitable explosion of politicians calling for new security measures and surveillance. We brace ourselves for this secondary blow, which generally comes before we even fully know what occurred in an attack or how it was allowed to occur.
Politicians need to be seen as actively protecting public safety and the easiest way is to add surveillance, reduce privacy and expand the security state. What they are not willing to discuss is the impossibility of detecting and deterring all attacks. The suggestion is that more security measures translate to more public safety. The fact is that even the most repressive nations with the most abusive security services, places such as China and Iran, have not been able to stop terrorist acts.
While police were still combing through the wreckage from the Boston Marathon, politicians ran to cameras to pledge more security measures and surveillance. Indeed, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel demanded more cameras in response to the Boston attack. Chicago already is one of the most surveilled cities in the United States. Emanuel’s solution: add some more. It is a perfectly Pavlovian response of politicians eager to appear as champions of public safety.
We need to resist the calls for a greater security state and put this attack into perspective. These two brothers built homemade bombs with over-the-counter pressure cookers. They placed the devices in one of the most surveilled areas of Boston with an abundance of police and cameras [Proof here]. There is only so much that a free nation can do to avoid such an attack. Two men walked in a crowd and put two bags down on the ground shortly before detonation.
No one is seriously questioning the value of having increased surveillance and police at major events. That was already the case with the Boston Marathon. However, privacy is dying in the United States by a thousand papercuts from countless new laws and surveillance systems. Before we plunge ahead in creating a fishbowl society of surveillance, we might want to ask whether such new measures or devices will actually make us safer or just make us appear safer.
Not only did mass surveillance fail to stop the Boston bombing, it also failed to stop 9/11:
And U.S. and allied intelligence heard the 9/11 hijackers plans from their own mouths:
- An FBI informant hosted and rented a room to two hijackers in 2000. Specifically, investigators for the Congressional Joint Inquiry discovered that an FBI informant had hosted and even rented a room to two hijackers in 2000 and that, when the Inquiry sought to interview the informant, the FBI refused outright, and then hid him in an unknown location, and that a high-level FBI official stated these blocking maneuvers were undertaken under orders from the White House. As the New York Times notes:
Senator Bob Graham, the Florida Democrat who is a former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, accused the White House on Tuesday of covering up evidence ….The accusation stems from the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s refusal to allow investigators for a Congressional inquiry and the independent Sept. 11 commission to interview an informant, Abdussattar Shaikh, who had been the landlord in San Diego of two Sept. 11 hijackers.
- According to Le Monde, the intelligence services of America’s close ally France and of other governments had infiltrated the highest levels of Al-Qaeda’s camps, and actually listened to the hijackers’ debates about which airlines’ planes should be hijacked, and allied intelligence services also intercepted phone conversations between Al-Qaeda members regarding the attacks
- According to journalist Christopher Ketcham, America’s close ally Israel tracked the hijackers’ every move prior to the attacks, and sent agents to film the attack on the World Trade Centers
- The National Security Agency and the FBI were each independently listening in on the phone calls between the supposed mastermind of the attacks and the lead hijacker. Indeed, the FBI built its own antenna in Madagascar specifically to listen in on the mastermind’s phone calls
- According to various sources, on the day before 9/11, the mastermind told the lead hijacker “tomorrow is zero hour” and gave final approval for the attacks. The NSA intercepted the message that day and the FBI was likely also monitoring the mastermind’s phone calls
- Shortly before 9/11, the NSA also intercepted multiple phone calls to the United States from Bin Laden’s chief of operations
- According to the Sunday Herald, two days before 9/11, Bin Laden called his stepmother and told her “In two days, you’re going to hear big news and you’re not going to hear from me for a while.” U.S. officials later told CNN that “in recent years they’ve been able to monitor some of bin Laden’s telephone communications with his [step]mother. Bin Laden at the time was using a satellite telephone, and the signals were intercepted and sometimes recorded.” Indeed, before 9/11, to impress important visitors, NSA analysts would occasionally play audio tapes of bin Laden talking to his stepmother.
- And according to CBS News, at 9:53 a.m on 9/11, just 15 minutes after the hijacked plane had hit the Pentagon, “the National Security Agency, which monitors communications worldwide, intercepted a phone call from one of Osama bin Laden’s operatives in Afghanistan to a phone number in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia”, and secretary of Defense Rumsfeld learned about the intercepted phone call in real-time (if the NSA monitored and transcribed phone calls in real-time on 9/11, that implies that it did so in the months leading up to 9/11 as well)
But even with all of that spying, the government didn’t stop the hijackers … even though 9/11 was entirely foreseeable.
If you have a hard time believing that the government would push a program on the basis of national security which impinges on our freedoms and yet is ineffective in keeping us safe, please review the following statements by top national security experts saying that the following government programs do nothing at all to make us safer:
- Invading countries who are not imminently threatening to attack us