Efforts to detect terrorism hampered by mass surveillance, says former NSA technical director

US at risk of missing terrorist threats under huge volume of surveillance data, says former NSA technical director

The US National Security Agency (NSA) is collecting too much intelligence data to analyse, one of its former technical directors has warned.

As a result, the agency could be missing indications of the very terrorist threats it is attempting to counter.

Bill Binney is the former technical director of an NSA research unit that developed a targeted data acquisition programme, Thinthread, which was later shelved in favour of bulk data collection.

But the NSA’s decision to harvest “everything” has swamped its analysts, causing them to miss vital intelligence, Binney said in an interview with Computer Weekly.

“That’s the problem,” said Binney. “They’re basically buried in information and that’s why they can’t succeed.”

Shortly after 9/11, Binney’s fellow NSA whistleblower, Thomas Drake, used elements of Binney’s programme to discover that the NSA had suppressed a report on Al Qaeda’s movements in the US before the attack on the twin towers.

He also found that the NSA had withheld key monitoring data on Al Qaeda.

“Make no mistake,” Drake wrote in an open letter to President Obama, “that data and the analytic report could have, should have, prevented 9/11.”

Drake’s discovery led to an immediate clampdown. “In spring 2002, the remnants of Thinthread were unceremoniously put on the shelf in NSA’s 'Indiana Jones’ data warehouse, never to be seen again,” Drake wrote.

Monitoring could have detected Snowden

It would have been harder for whistleblowers like Edward Snowden to leak information under Thinthread – and unnecessary, claimed Binney.

The project included an internal monitoring system that would have picked up a mass download such as Snowden's on the spot. “We’d have known as soon as he started doing it.”

Binney used automated analysis-based targeting to restrict collection to legal and necessary data in Thinthread.

Today, the NSA is deploying upstream collection on major fibre optic lines, in conjunction with major telecoms companies, to collect data on a huge scale.

NSA surveillance affects three billion people 

Binney estimates that US blanket surveillance has affected between two and three billion people worldwide.

The NSA has built a centre in Bluffdale, Utah, complete with a cutting-edge supercomputer and costing at least $1.5bn, to store this bulk raw data.

The NSA has been criticised in the US for targeting US citizens and foreigners in breach of the US Constitution.

Surveillance abroad may also be illegal under the respective national laws, including in the UK

Dangers of reconstructing evidence from illegal surveillance

Evidence obtained by the NSA and other government agencies through illegal covert surveillance is not admissible in US courts.

They must reconstruct it through a method known as parallel construction, a process that prevents legal discovery by defence lawyers, said Binney.

Binney claims there is a risk that the NSA data could be selectively mined to imprison people seen as political threats to the establishment, particularly under new legislation enabling suspected terrorists to be subject to indefinite military detention.  

Members of Congress have attempted to remove funding from the NSA’s collection programme amid concerns about its effectiveness and its legality. 

“And the reason they did it,” said Binney, “was they found they weren’t being told the truth by the intelligence committees inside Congress. So Congress is lying to [itself] about what’s going on. It’s not just the agencies which are lying to Congress [and] to everybody else.”

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