For Christmas, the NSA Gave Us a List of Its Surveillance Screw-Ups


Proof that NSA's critics are a bunch of pansies.
Credit: Steve Rhodes / photo on flickr

While we were all watching The Interview Christmas Eve, the National Security Agency (NSA) released a whole bunch of reports detailing (not that we can read the details with the redactions) all the times it screwed up its surveillance tools and possibly violated somebody's privacy.

The NSA introduction page says the docs were posted on Tuesday, but David Lerman at Bloomberg News reports they went up Wednesday afternoon. The introduction also declines to mention that the release of the documents is a direct result of a freedom of information lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), making the NSA appear to be more compliant and transparent than it would be otherwise (this has been an ongoing trend with NSA document releases).

Of course, there's going to be attention on some of the more obvious violations. From Fox News:

The reports show violations including communications from people in the U.S. being "inadvertently targeted or collected" by the agency. Some of the violations resemble the disclosures of NSA programs by Edward Snowden.

The report cites incidents of "poorly constructed data queries" that targeted Americans, improper handling of data and information used improperly.

Some incidents showed how a U.S. Army sergeant used an NSA system to "target his wife," which led to a reduction in rank and further punishment.

But while those incidents may be the most disconcerting, actually looking through a report will show dozens upon dozens of less sexy, but nevertheless important bureaucratic and technical issues with the operations of the tools the NSA uses for surveillance. The most recent report (pdf) is for the fourth quarter of 2012. By this time, the NSA has had years to hammer out all sorts of problems with its system. Yet, the quarterly report contains 20 pages of brief descriptions of mistakes. Most are not of sinister intent, like the sergeant who targeted his wife, but many of them are from database queries that have not been properly handled or a due to a failure of oversight over who is supposed to have access to what, where. And several of the entries in just this one report are completely redacted. How much worse do those entries have to be that we're not allowed to see a single word about what happened?

Should we care about this? Recall the case of Khalid El-Masri, the German-Lebanese man mistakenly arrested and tortured by the CIA in a black site in Afghanistan. This cascade of bureaucratic mistakes doesn't have to be of ill intent to cause some serious harm to somebody. When the NSA extends its data gathering to people two or three steps away from its target, the next El-Masri could be any of us, entirely because of some analyst's error.

And, of course, these are only the mistakes or errors the NSA knows about and have reported. They are their own oversight. Every one of these disclosures about their surveillance programs comes with a lengthy explanation about how complex their system of internal oversight is, but it's still dependent on the NSA being honest and transparent. The fact that the ACLU had to fight the NSA to get just this extremely vague information is a reminder of how little the NSA actually supports transparency.

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  1. ” . And several of the entries in just this one report are completely redacted. How much worse do those entries have to be that we’re not allowed to see a single word about what happened?”

    You assume theirs a reason for the things they redact. They could have just been bored like Captain Yossarian.

    1. This.

      “Skip a bit, Brother.”

  2. “poorly constructed data queries”

    SELECT * FROM tableName WHERE (a = ‘WITCH’ AND a != ‘WITCH’);

    IRS mistakenly penalizes Christine O’Donnell a second time, placed levy on bank accounts

    1. s/W/B/g

      The result will result in Hilary Clinton’s accounts being frozen.

  3. I’m going to assume that the bit about the bad queries means that they have already hoovered up all the communications and then someone accesses too many because their query wasn’t restricted properly.

    Shouldn’t the troubling part be the fact that they have already collected all these private communications (with no reasonable suspicion)? And not because they accidentally wrote a query that returned a larger data set than was expected?

    1. It should be, but apparently most people are pretty used to it by now.

      Gathering data on everyone is easier than actually doing the work to figure out who might be up to something, then getting a warrant. Plus, when someone does commit some sort of crime, the can then look back at the data and realize they had enough information to prevent the crime but they couldn’t connect the dots because there was too much fucking data.

      1. Kev, you are more positive than I am. You think they’d only go back and review the tapes when there is an actual crime.

        I think that they don’t need an actual crime. All you have to do is embarrass the guvt and they will go back and find something they can slime you with.

        For example, when they bust down your door in a botched drug raid they will pull something to make you look like a dangerous kook.

  4. The report cites incidents of “poorly constructed data queries” that targeted Americans, improper handling of data and information used improperly.

    What, if any, corrective or disciplinary action was taken as a result of these “poorly constructed data queries”, improper handling of data”, and improper use of information?

    1. Well, they attempted to do so but the discipline was poorly constructed. Also poorly constructed, the investigation.

    2. How can any human be disciplined for “poorly constructed data queries”, which are obviously COMPUTER GLITCHES?

  5. So who’s been fired and serving prison terms for these rights violations?

    If you admit to the crime it’s okay?

    Oops, I stole someone’s money…My bad, I murdered someone…Shucks, I committed rape. Well, now that I’ve admitted to these crimes, I’m good to go.

    /the government


    1. Who punishes the punishers?

    2. If you admit to show remorse for the crime it’s okay


      1. No wonder we are broke. The guvt should be selling indulgences, not giving them away!

        If you really wanted to make some cash, you could sell them to non-guvt folk too (but at markedly higher prices).

  6. it’s still dependent on the NSA being honest and transparent.

    And this is where I throw in the Madison reference to restricting the power of government – if men were angels they could be trusted with the power of government, but if men were angels they would need no government. What is government if not proof that men are not angels?

    “Trust us” coming from the government should always be met with peals of derisive laughter and a barrage of rotten fruit if not howls of outrage and a hailstorm of rocks. “Trust us” is just about the most un-American thing they can possibly say. We were founded as a nation on the idea that government cannot, should not, ever be trusted.

    1. What would old white men who owned slaves know about anything?!?

  7. up to I saw the check 4 $7874 , I didn’t believe that…my… sister woz like they say actualey bringing home money parttime on their laptop. . there sisters neighbour started doing this for under 16 months and just paid the mortgage on there condo and got Lotus Elan . go to the website………


  8. You didn’t really expect part of the federal mafia to just roll over for transparency did you, Shackford? The government is a criminal organization at all levels.

  9. If NSA were truly interested in transparency, would they have released the info on Xmas?

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