In their effort to justify their existence, the NSA director claimed that because of his agency’s widespread surveillance practices, over 50 terrorist attacks worldwide have been prevented. He even said that if these same practices were in place prior to 9/11 (many accounts show that they actually were in place then), we could have prevented that too. So what’s everybody complaining about? The NSA’s saving lives while everybody else is griping and complaining about privacy and the unlikely prospects of our government using all our digital data against us.
CNN posted an article by Peter Bergen that took a look at the NSA Director’s claim:
“Homegrown jihadist extremists have mounted 42 plots to conduct attacks within the United States since 2001. Of those plots, nine involved an actual terrorist act that was not prevented by any type of government action, such as the failed attempt by Faisal Shahzad to blow up a car bomb in Times Square on May 1, 2010. Of the remaining 33 plots, the public record shows that at least 29 were uncovered by traditional law enforcement methods, such as the use of informants, reliance on community tips about suspicious activity and other standard policing practices.”
So, in the vast majority of cases, the NSA’s snooping policies played no role in preventing terrorist attacks. Their polices may have contributed to foiling maybe 4 cases, but even then, we don’t know for sure. All we know is that they’re keeping track of everybody, just in case.
Bruce Schneier, a security and technology expert shows how incredibly inefficient and ineffective data mining is to prevent terrorist attacks:
“Many credit-card thieves share a pattern — purchase expensive luxury goods, purchase things that can be easily fenced, etc. — and data mining systems can minimize the losses in many cases by shutting down the card. In addition, the cost of false alarms is only a phone call to the cardholder asking him to verify a couple of purchases. The cardholders don’t even resent these phone calls — as long as they’re infrequent — so the cost is just a few minutes of operator time. Terrorist plots are different. There is no well-defined profile and attacks are very rare. Taken together, these facts mean that data-mining systems won’t uncover any terrorist plots until they are very accurate, and that even very accurate systems will be so flooded with false alarms that they will be useless.”
And that’s what the NSA has. A flood of false alarms that they have to sift through. No wonder the Boston bombers were able to “slip through the cracks.” There’s no way even a computer could sift through trillions and trillions of data points to connect the dots to uncover some terrorist plot without first “uncovering” trillions of false positives. Maybe their stated goal of national security isn’t their actual goal.