As I See It: Pocket Litter
June 1, 2012 Victor Rozek
For those in the “pocket litter” collection business, things are looking up. They’ve got a project with a $2 billion budget, courtesy of us the taxpayers, and a whopping 10,000 contractors who, as we speak, are building an ugly but exceedingly spacious data center to be filled with high tech toys. And, overruns will not be a problem.
If you’re a supercomputer maker, server provider, or manufacturer of storage devices and count the NSA among your customers, these are equally heady times. You’re probably ecstatic, hyperventilating with anticipation. You’re going to sell a lot of hardware, and overruns are almost guaranteed.
On the other hand, if you’re skeptical by nature, or maybe just paying close attention, things are not looking so bright.
“Pocket litter” refers to inconsequential information of the sort that could be found in your pocket: a grocery list, a matchbook, a phone number. But add “digital” as a modifier to pocket litter and that inconsequential information suddenly includes your bank records, purchases, travel itineraries, Google searches, cell phone calls, texts, tweets, social network activities, and what you naively believed to be your private emails.
The NSA wants it all, foreign and domestic. No more pretense. No need for the pretext of terrorist threats, or even actual terrorists. Nor, heaven forbid, oversight in the form of courts and warrants. Checks and balances are sooo last century. The intelligence community’s wet dream of total information awareness is taking a giant step closer to fruition in the Utah desert where the agency is constructing the mother of all data-gathering facilities. As reported by James Bamford in the April issue of Wired, the installation will be five times the size of the U.S. Capitol, (and we know how useful that building has been). It will host 100,000 square feet of servers, 1 million square feet of data storage, and 900,000 square feet for tech support and administration. (They could probably save taxpayers a lot of money by outsourcing all that tech support to India. But I digress.)
Beyond capturing the minutia of your daily life, the center will conduct a muscular code-breaking program using the latest-generation supercomputer. Reportedly, it is much faster than the “warehouse-sized” Cray XT5 previously used by the NSA which, at a speed of 1.75 petaflops, was the world’s fastest, at least back in 2009. Considerably more horsepower will be required in order to crack hardened data shells. Capturing messages doesn’t mean they can actually be read. Encryption methods have gotten so sophisticated that unraveling the algorithm used in the Advanced Encryption Standard by means of a brute-force computer attack, “would likely take longer than the age of the universe,” or an episode of Desperate Housewives. It seems that the NSA has a backlog of encrypted messages it would like to read, plus a daily stream of financial, diplomatic, military, and other deep web data.
Given the amount of information that can be stored on your humble thumb drive, imagine the mountains of information that will eventually reside in that data center. Well, actually, you can’t imagine it, because it’s measured in something called yottabytes. A yottabyte, explains Bamford, “is a septillion bytes–so large that no one has yet coined a term for the next higher magnitude.” I volunteer “bytemebytes.” Bamford, however, offers a more graphic representation: 500 quintillion pages of text, that’s 500,000,000,000,000,000,000 pages. Good luck locating that lost grocery list.
Small wonder it’s hard to find anything useful in all that digital clutter. Even with unparalleled (but parallelized) computing power, it’s proven to be a daunting challenge for the NSA. The agency is exceptionally good at half of what it does: gathering information. But the agency’s analysts have been the Capitol Clampetts when it comes to actually identifying threats. Among the things they missed were “the first World Trade Center bombing, the blowing up of U.S. embassies in East Africa, and the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen.” More recently, the underwear bomber in 2009 and the Times Square bomber in 2010 eluded the agency’s attention. Not to mention the mega-events like the fall of the Soviet Union and 9/11 itself.
With Internet traffic alone predicted to quadruple from 2010 to 2015, it would make sense to pare down the amount of information being collected, rather than increasing the catch. If you’re fishing for cod, scooping up the entire ocean will not improve your odds. Which is what William Binney told the agency.
Binney is a former senior NSA crypto-mathematician who, according to Bamford, was “largely responsible for automating the agency’s worldwide eavesdropping network.” He suggested what I would call a Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon approach. If Kevin Bacon is a known bad guy, his activities would be carefully monitored. The NSA might also want to monitor Kevin Bacon’s best friend. But the pizza delivery guy who knows the hardware store guy who sold Kevin Bacon’s gardener a rake is probably not a threat. The agency might just want to take a collective deep breath and relax.
But the NSA wanted the gardener, the hardware store guy, and the pizza delivery guy, presumably in case he was delivering top secret computer chips with the pepperoni. In response, Binney quit his job. He cited concerns that the post 9/11 warrantless wiretapping was illegal. His employers, he said, were violating the Constitution and were bent on continuing to do so. “. . . they didn’t care,” said Binney. “They were going to do it anyway and they were going to crucify anyone who stood in their way.” Holding his thumb and forefinger close together, he said, “We are that far from a turnkey totalitarian state.”
The security state tends to be self justifying and self perpetuating. There are now 17 agencies in the spying business with a combined budget of $80 billion–not counting off-budget items. And that doesn’t include hundreds of private companies that play in the same sandbox. Nearly 850,000 people now have top secret clearance. You have to question the value of a secret shared by 850,000 folks, but the numbers are growing. And about 1 million people are on the NSA’s watch list.
We’re creating an insatiable beast that traffics in universal suspicion. Everyone is treated as a potential threat, and no one can be trusted to live his life unexamined by the state. Hiding behind the misnamed Patriot Act, the NSA is essentially declaring itself beyond the reach and rule of law. And no one of either party has shown any inclination to rein it in.
Step by step, our government’s intrusiveness into our private lives is being normalized. Just lately, permission has been granted for thousands of drones to eventually crisscross the U.S. mainland. And the Supreme Court recently allowed for the most unreasonable of searches–strip searches–to be conducted at the whim of the police. On our streets, surveillance cameras are as ubiquitous as pollen. We are being watched, listened to, and recorded without cause or legitimate sanction. And the reason has little to do with safety or intelligence.
In Orwell’s prophetic novel 1984, the protagonist, Winston Smith, is being tortured for the crime of falling in love. His captors hold him in such disdain that they readily explain the Party’s true motivation: “complete and absolute power.” If information is power then what do we make of the NSA’s desire for “total information awareness?”
No need to worry. As Orwell might have said: violation is privacy.