Losing The Signal In The Noise

As I’ve mentioned before mass surveillance is not effective at discovering and thwarting terrorists attacks before they happen. When you collect everything the signals are lost in the noise. But government officials continue their demands for weakening encryption so their mass surveillance apparatuses can better spy on us. This in spite of the fact the National Security Agency (NSA) is already so overwhelmed with noise that finding signals has become an exercise in luck:

A TOP-SECRET NATIONAL SECURITY AGENCY DOCUMENT, dated 2011, describes how, by “sheer luck,” an analyst was able to access the communications of top officials of Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela.

Beyond the issue of spying on a business, the document highlights a significant flaw in mass surveillance programs: how indiscriminate collection can blind rather than illuminate. It also illustrates the technical and bureaucratic ease with which NSA analysts are able to access the digital communications of certain foreign targets.

The document, provided by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, is a March 23, 2011, article in the NSA’s internal newsletter, SIDtoday. It is written by a signals development analyst who recounts how, in addition to luck, he engaged in a “ton of hard work” to discover that the NSA had obtained access to vast amounts of Petróleos de Venezuela’s internal communications, apparently without anyone at the NSA having previously noticed this surveillance “goldmine.”

That the NSA, unbeknownst to itself, was collecting sensitive communications of top Venezuelan oil officials demonstrates one of the hazards of mass surveillance: The agency collects so much communications data from around the world that it often fails to realize what it has. That is why many surveillance experts contend that mass surveillance makes it harder to detect terrorist plots as compared to an approach of targeted surveillance: An agency that collects billions of communications events daily will fail to understand the significance of what it possesses.

Since the analyst made a note of finding the data on Petróleos de Venezuela it must be assumed it was on the agency’s list of desired signals. It was only after a lot of work and some dumb luck that the analyst found it buried in the sea of collected data.

If the NSA already has too much data how is adding more data going to improve matters? It’s not. In fact it will only make its ability to find valuable signals even more hopeless. That being the case, it makes you wonder what the real intentions of making mass surveillance easier are. It certainly isn’t to thwart terrorist attacks since doing that would require greatly trimming down the amount of data collected. On the other hand, if you just want the data at hand to prosecute a thorn in the side at a later date the mass surveillance system could prove to be somewhat useful.