NSA's Real Problem: It Can't Find Terrorists

Lost in the controversy over the National Security Agency getting phone records of hundreds of millions of people may be a very dangerous fact: The information it requested is useless for tracking down terrorists. So says a science fellow at...

May 16, 2006

2 Min Read
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Lost in the controversy over the National Security Agency getting phone records of hundreds of millions of people may be a very dangerous fact: The information it requested is useless for tracking down terrorists. So says a science fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford. Writing an op ed piece in the New York Times, Jonathan David Farley says of the NSA program, "it's very unlikely that the type of information one can glean from it will help us win the war on terrorism."

Farley goes into a great deal of detail about mathematical models that can be applied to data found in vast social networks as a way of uncovering relationships among people.

He describes a variety of methods that the NSA may be using to uncover relationships that may lead them to terrorists. And he finds them all lacking.

Why does he come to that conclusion? Because math by itself is meaningless, and mere assocations between people uncovers nothing.

As an example, he points out that "President Bush is only a few steps away from Osama bin Laden (in the 1970's he ran a company partly financed by the American representative for one of the Qaeda leader's brothers)."Does that mean that Bush is part of Al Qaeda? Hardly.

Farley says that key to using this kind of data is other kinds of information, such grouping together people who go to the bookstores, cafes and mosques, and then see if all the people who go to a certain cafe also go to the same mosque.

The problem with the NSA phone information is that it's too much information, with not enough other kinds of intelligence.

Farley says that applying math to vast amounts of apparently unrelated data can certainly help root out terrorism, but he believes that the NSA isn't doing it right here.

We don't really know, of course, because the NSA isn't talking about how the information is being used. So it may be that they are doing the right thing.But Farley isn't convinced. Here's his succinct summation: "Legal or not, this sort of spying program probably isn't worth infringing our civil liberties for -- because it's very unlikely that the type of information one can glean from it will help us win the war on terrorism."

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