Why Spy on Everybody? Because "You Need the Haystack To Find the Needle," Says NSA Chief

NSANSAInterviewed in front of an audience at the Aspen Security Forum by NBC's Pete Wlliams, General Keith Alexander, Director of the National Security Agency, echoed the old (two) party line that everything changed after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, and that's why the US government needs to set the National Security Agency to tracking everybody's communications. And, as you might guess he'd say, keeping all of that snooping hidden is for our own good.

The purpose of these programs and the reason we use secrecy is not to hide it from the American people, not to hide it from you, but to keep it hidden from those who walk aming you who are trying to kill you.

And what Edward Snowden did in exposing the snooping is very bad, indeed.

We have concrete proof that ... terrorist groups and others are taking actions, making changes, and it's going to make our job tougher.

But Alexander hastened to assure his audience that the NSA would be overwhelmed by the task of actually perusing all of those communications it intercepts, even if it wanted to.

If you think that we would listen to everybody's telephone calls and read everybody's emails to connect the dots, How do you do that? And the answer is, that’s not logical. That would be a waste of our resources to get there.

This is why, he says, the NSA focuses on metadata: who we're contacting, how frequently and for how long. That lets it pick and choose whose communications are then worthy of further scrutiny (though he insists that the FBI would do the scrutinizing for purely domestic communications, and then only after a warrant). But the snoops can only identify the emails they really want to see and the phone calls they really want to listen to, if they have all of thet metadata to scan, as a sort of table of contents to the world's chatter. As he put it, "you need the haystack to find the needle."

But there's a huge "trust us" element to Alexander's argument. The implicit assumption is that there''s no threat in letting government officials know who we're communicating with, even if our contacts include foreign opponents of regimes favored by our government, domestic political activists, candidates running against American politicians, journalists communicating with whistleblowers...

We're supposed to trust the NSA and any other officials with access to this data to maintain the same definitions of "needle" and "haystack" that all the rest of us might respect, and to thoroughly abide by that differentiation.

That's a lot to ask.

The Aspen Times has more coverage of the speech here.

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  • Live Free or Diet||

    When looking for a needle, I prefer to check in the sewing kit.

  • Eduard van Haalen||

    What happened to the bald perjurer who said that the NSA never "wittingly" collected information on millions of Americans? Can we trust *him*?

    And if Snowden hadn't proven him to be a liar, would the NSA people still be claiming baldy's lies were the truth?

  • RightNut||

    Metadata is DATA. Alot can be inferred by who is being called, at what time, and for how long.

    Example: CEO X makes one 20 minute call almost everyday to woman Y around midnight, both X and Y are married, and not to each other.

    What would you infer from that metadata? And if you were a malicious bureaucrat, what could you do with it?

  • Live Free or Diet||

    Where can I buy one of these "burner phones" I hear about on TV crime dramas?

  • Anonymous Coward||

    Wal-Mart. Put 60 minutes on a prepaid phone and you're good to go. If you have a conversation of a "sensitive" nature, drop the phone in the trash afterwards and get another.

  • CE||

    Don't buy it with a credit card though.

  • Live Free or Diet||

    If you have a conversation of a "sensitive" nature, drop the phone in the trash afterwards and get another.

    I figured I'd put a magnet on it and stick it on a cop's car.

  • ||

    So even though they've already been proven to have lied, we're supposed to trust them? FUCK YOU.

  • ||

    Who are you going to believe: an Obama approved Top Man or some libertarian computer geek that didn't even go to the right college?

  • Art Vandelay||

    "or some libertarian computer geek that didn't even go to the right college?"

    Just because Epi went to Clown College doesn't mean you have to belittle him.

  • CE||

    Hey, I'm a libertarian computer geek, and I assure you I went to the right college.

  • Agammamon||

    C,mon baby, I only lied for your protection. I just want to keep you safe.

  • Rights-Minimalist Autocrat||

    +1 Fuck Off Slaver

  • Anonymous Coward||

    The purpose of these programs and the reason we use secrecy is not to hide it from the American people, not to hide it from you, but to keep it hidden from those who walk aming you who are trying to kill you.

    Bits of careless talk are piece together by the enemy

    Using that same statement, he could just as easily be talking about the police, who kill more Americans every year than Al-Qaeda and "Al-Qaeda affiliates."

  • rts||

    "You Need the Haystack To Find the Needle," Says NSA Chief

    You have to hand it to him though, that's kind of poetic.

  • ||

    It is complete nonsense.

  • rts||

    Poetic nonsense!

  • PS wanders the Wasteland||

    You need the nonsense to find the poetry.

  • Aresen||

    Step 2:

    Burn the haystack.

  • John Thacker||

    As he put it, "you need the haystack to find the needle."

    And so their approach is if they can't find the needle, need to get more hay. Questionable.

    (Fun Fact: The CARNIVORE tool that made the news a few years back was specifically named because it went after *less* hay than the tools it replaced. Rather than eating everything, it only went after the meat. Too bad the name sounded scary, it was actually less scary than some of the other things they use[d].)

  • Pro Libertate||

    The same could be said of normal law enforcement activities, though. Want to bust a mafia don? Well, it's a lot easier if you can just compile evidence from any source without having to get warrants and strictly comply with Fourth Amendment requirements.

    But our system wasn't set up to value law enforcement or intelligence activities above civil liberties, which is why the former has to jump through all those hoops. The latter is supposed to, too, but NATIONAL SECURITY EXEMPTION TO CONSTITUTION INVOKED.

  • Scruffy Nerfherder||

    But MUSLIMS!!!!

  • DontShootMe||

    OT. Apparently something damaging about the IRS or NSA is about to come out, or has come out, as Obama struggles to keep media focus on the Zimmerman case: linky

  • John||

    The people in Cincinnati told Congress yesterday that the instructions to go after the Tea Party came from the Chief Counsel, one of the three Obama Appointees at the agency. The media is desperate not to cover it.

    The strategy now is to move the goal posts and talk about how foolish Issa looks because there is no evidence the White House gave the instruction.

  • DontShootMe||

    I really, really want the IRS to be able to determine if I'm poor enough and sick enough to qualify for an ObamaCare subsidy. No risk there...

  • Scruffy Nerfherder||

    It is important to note that the Soviet Union's main tool in subduing the Eastern Bloc countries was the secret police. Local control was allowed on most things but never for the secret police.

  • RightNut||

    What are you guys bitching about, the constitution allows them to do this, just look!

  • Pro Libertate||

    Redacted!

  • John||

    http://pjmedia.com/tatler/2013.....years-ago/

    Trayvon Martin isn't Obama's son, he is Obama. Obama is Trayvon!!

  • rts||

    My god but Obama is a twat.

  • WTF||

    He really is vile.

  • Juice||

    I think it's ok though. He'll turn off more people when he says shit like this.

  • Scruffy Nerfherder||

    “Statistically, somebody like Trayvon Martin was probably, statistically, more likely to be shot by a peer than he was by somebody else,” Obama acknowledged. “Folks understand the challenges that exist for African-American boys; they get frustrated if they feel that there’s no context for it.”

    How am I supposed to interpret that? If Trayvon had been killed by another black kid, nobody would be upset?

  • Night Elf Mohawk||

    How many others of the hundreds killed by blacks in last year alone can you name? I think your interpretation aligns with the facts.

  • CE||

    Isn't Obama racist for even saying that out loud?

  • Night Elf Mohawk||

    If only.

  • Dave Krueger||

    What a patronizing moron. No one believes the NSA is reading everyone's emails. The problem is that they CAN read anyone's emails if they want to. There's a big difference. The government isn't going to be reading the emails of the millions of mindless automatons that make up the vast majority of the population. They're going to be reading the emails of the trouble makers as they define that term.

  • John||

    Exactly. The police are unlikely to bust down my door right now. But, that doesn't mean I am okay with them having the power to do so.

  • GroundTruth||

    "trust us"????

    The entire friggin point of the structure and content of our Constitution is that government (and its minions) can *N*O*T* be trusted.

    If you think they can't look at the content of everything now, perhaps you are right, but within a few years they will be able to sieve the content of everything too! Count on it! Do you really want your endearments to your significant other read, even by a machine? And this data will be kept FOREVER!

    No, I do not trust them!

  • Voros McCracken||

    If he thinks "we don't have time" is reassuring to us when it comes to the question of reading our e-mails and listening to our phone calls, he's delusional.

    "We're not allowed to" is the only correct response, one he tellingly didn't provide.

  • EternalOptimist||

    Let's assume we do trust them. Even then, with such a large expensive project such as this, you'd need a way to measure it's success. This would also provide accountability. Why didn't the system prevent the Boston bombing? Why is it costing well over the original estimated cost? How do you quantify the efficiency and success of what would have to be the largest IT database development project in world history? There's absolutely no accountability. If this were a private industry project, it would never be funded, even by the biggest IT firms, who always get the best and brightest to work on their teams.

  • PH2050||

    The VA medical care system is a joke with its "electronic records system" and these fools want to create an even bigger behemoth. I don't know whether to laugh or cry at their stupidity.

  • ATXChappy||

    "If you think that we would listen to everybody's telephone calls and read everybody's emails to connect the dots, How do you do that? And the answer is, that’s not logical. That would be a waste of our resources to get there."

    I can't get to the original article now. It looks like it's behind a pay wall. But, I was more disturbed when he expanded on the above paragraph to say they don't listen to everybody's calls and read everyone's emails because it would not be "operationally efficient". So, I guess it's game on once they figure out a way to make it "operationally efficient". I'm thinking his "How do you do that?" question wasn't rhetorical.

  • Rasilio||

    "If you think that we would listen to everybody's telephone calls and read everybody's emails to connect the dots, How do you do that? And the answer is, that’s not logical. That would be a waste of our resources to get there."

    I do believe there is an app for that

  • CE||

    I've got a needle they can have.

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