Sunday, December 22, 2013

NSA: The world's biggest hoarder?

It dawned on me this weekend that the NSA is exhibiting classic hoarder behavior. TV shows such as "Hoarders" and "Hoarding: Buried Alive" visit the homes and apartments of compulsive hoarders, which are inevitably stacked to the ceiling with everything you can imagine--magazines, books, cats and dogs, fingernail clippings, used pizza boxes, etc. The rationalization often given by compulsive hoarders is that they're keeping these things in case they need them someday.

That's exactly the same rationalization that the NSA has used for many of its data collection programs. The agency is running hundreds of programs under nondescript codenames, vacuuming up telephone call metadata, emails, texts, tweets, browser histories, etc., in the hope that they may be useful for stopping a terrorist plot. There are so many programs, operating under so many different sets of rules, that analysts at the NSA can't keep track of them all. Having run out of space to keep all the data in its existing data centers, the NSA is spending billions of dollars to build new data centers in Utah and Maryland. That's like a hoarder renting storage units when they have no more room in their house.

Last week, Judge Richard Leon ruled that the NSA's program of storing all the phone call metadata for every person in the country for five years is likely to be a violation of the Fourth Amendment. In his ruling, Judge Leon wrote that neither the NSA nor the Justice Department had presented any evidence that the NSA's massive, multi-year phone metadata collection program had contributed to thwarting or solving a single case of terrorism.

The NSA has explicitly argued that it needs to keep billions of phone records (and, by extension, everything else) for years because it wants to be able to go back through them if necessary. Judge Leon wrote that, to date, the NSA hasn't found anything useful in the phone records, and there's no justification for the agency's massive violations of the Fourth Amendment. That sounds an awful lot like compulsive hoarding behavior.

Would the NSA have been a lot more selective in its data collection if General Alexander wasn't running it? I suspect so...and given what he's done at the NSA, I wouldn't want to visit the General's house.
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