In Depth

Sorry Snowden, NSA spying is 'overhyped and overrated'

Fugitive whistleblower risked everything to expose surveillance even Obama doesn't take too seriously

Crispin Black

IT is becoming clear that Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency whistleblower, didn't really think it through before leaving his attractive "ballerina" companion, Lindsay Mills, in Hawaii and setting out for Hong Kong to betray some of his country's most embarrassing intelligence secrets. Acting on (inaccurate) information that Snowden may have been doing a bunk from Moscow on a plane carrying the President of Bolivia back home to La Paz the Americans insisted on Tuesday that the plane, despite enjoying full diplomatic immunity, be denied flight clearances across Europe. He can run, but he can't hide.

Snowden's supporters rail against an over-mighty state.  His opponents and much of American public opinion regard him as a traitor and look forward to his extradition/rendition back to the US and the 30 years he can expect in the Federal Supermax federal prison outside Florence, Colorado.  

But I am also beginning to wonder whether the NSA (and our own GCHQ which is a wholly-owned subsidiary) have really thought it through either.  

Snowden's revelations suggest that both agencies collect vast quantities of electronic information – everybody's emails, Skype conversations, tweets, and fax messages, whatever the agencies have an appetite for.  The intention is to gather as much information as possible and then subject it to retrospective computer analysis.  The collection effort appears untargeted – extravagantly promiscuous, even.

Quite how NSA analysts manage to generate meaningful, actionable intelligence from this amount of material is a mystery.  It's true that some very clever people, particularly mathematicians and computer geeks, work at NSA's Fort Meade Headquarters in leafy Maryland.  But reading a billion emails each day is impossible.  'Ah', they will say, 'we have sophisticated data mining techniques.'  I still don't see how this can work.  Of course, it is possible to read, say, just the emails from Islamabad to Indianapolis that say 'Death to the infidel' but I would be surprised if this is how even the dimmest jihadists communicate.    

Snowden has revealed that the NSA runs a program codenamed Boundless Informant designed to give an overview of the American intelligence effort by country.  In March 2013, apparently, the NSA collected 97 billion pieces of intelligence (my italics) from computer networks worldwide, including 14 billion from Iran and 12.7 billion from Jordan (population 6.5 million)  – one of the world's smaller countries.

The power of computer analysis to sift through vast quantities of information is almost certainly overhyped and overrated – like so much else in the intelligence world.  How data-mining deals with the subtler, veiled-speech type of message that terrorists might use is equally problematic.  For all their other virtues, few Americans truly understand irony - saying one thing when you mean another.  If they don't get it in real life it is hard to see how they can write a computer program that does.   

Another part of Snowden's revelations suggests that the USA has subjected EU offices in New York, Washington and Brussels to 'technical attack' including tampering with EU confidential fax machines  – one copy for Brussels, another to Fort Meade. At least this is more like traditional intelligence practice.  Someone in Washington has worked out that they want to know what senior EU officials are thinking.  It's targeted rather than random.  But is it a sensible use of limited resources?  The EU's policies on almost everything are perfectly clear.  What wisdom or advantage could possibly accrue to the United States from wading through yet another turgid fax from Lady Ashton to her missions abroad?

At a press conference at the end of his visit to Tanzania on 1 July President Obama tried to downplay the significance of the revelations.  It was a curiously half-hearted attempt in which his own doubts about the usefulness of some intelligence seemed to peep through inadvertently.

'…if I want to know what Chancellor Merkel is thinking, I will call Chancellor Merkel.'

Quite.  So why bother with intelligence then?

Actually, he doesn't - or at least not nearly as much as his predecessors.  According to information from a conservative think tank called the Government Accountability Institute, during his first 1,225 days in office Obama kicked off his day with an intelligence briefing, (which he downloads onto an iPad) 536 times or 43.8 per cent of the time, falling to just 38 per cent in 2011 and up to June 2012. George W Bush rarely missed a session.

After nearly five years in the Oval Office, and owing his re-election in part to a classical intelligence operation of near-sublime skill by the NSA and the CIA that tracked down Bin Laden - President Obama seems to be losing interest.  He prefers golf.

My guess is he has worked it out. Intelligence isn't about massive all-you-can-eat collection programs.  More than anything it's an art requiring discernment and economy of effort.  It has its uses, sometimes.  But why would any sane and busy human being want to start his day with a briefing from an organisation that collects 97 billion bits of information in a month and pretends it can make sense of them?

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