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United States Communications Government Privacy

Declassified Report From 2009 Questions Effectiveness of NSA Spying 56

schwit1 writes: With debate gearing up over the coming expiration of the Patriot Act surveillance law, the Obama administration on Saturday unveiled a 6-year-old report examining the once-secret program code-named Stellarwind, which collected information on Americans' calls and emails. The report was from the inspectors general of various intelligence and law enforcement agencies.

They found that while many senior intelligence officials believe the program filled a gap by increasing access to international communications, others including FBI agents, CIA analysts and managers "had difficulty evaluating the precise contribution of the [the surveillance system] to counterterrorism efforts because it was most often viewed as one source among many available analytic and intelligence-gathering tools in these efforts."

"The report said that the secrecy surrounding the program made it less useful. Very few working-level C.I.A. analysts were told about it. ... Another part of the newly disclosed report provides an explanation for a change in F.B.I. rules during the Bush administration. Previously, F.B.I. agents had only two types of cases: "preliminary" and "full" investigations. But the Bush administration created a third, lower-level type called an "assessment." This development, it turns out, was a result of Stellarwind.
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Declassified Report From 2009 Questions Effectiveness of NSA Spying

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  • by NoKaOi ( 1415755 ) on Sunday April 26, 2015 @05:17AM (#49554045)

    How much did that report cost? I could have given it to them in 2 words, for free:
    Q: "Is unconstitutional warrantless spying effective?"
    A: "Fuck no."

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      That's not what the report said, though.

      The report said that the resources needed to be used more effectively.

      I think that everyone agrees that this level of surveillance is bad for our society, but the report said something different from your summary.

      • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday April 26, 2015 @06:31AM (#49554177)

        Perhaps you should read it:
        http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/04/25/us/25stellarwind-ig-report.html

        It says Stellawind was illegal. That they knew it was illegal. That the FBI hid the details using a team '10' to scrub any mention of it, that the judges were misled, that Gonzales misled Congress, that it didn't work, that they misused NSLs, field officers said the info was garbage, their tests showed the results of random fishing were totally worthless, Yoo suggests Ashcroft hide it from [redacted] (likely Congress or the courts),

        NYT even highlighted the meat of the report. Yet you spin it, perhaps hoping nobody will actually follow the link?

        You datamine noise, the 'signal' you get is the portion of noise that maps your chosen filter. It's garbage and in the process you implement a mass surveillance system that threatens the core democracy.

        • It says Stellarwind was illegal. That they knew it was illegal. That the FBI hid the details using a team '10' to scrub any mention of it, that the judges were misled, that Gonzales misled Congress, that it didn't work, that they misused NSLs, field officers said the info was garbage, their tests showed the results of random fishing were totally worthless, Yoo suggests Ashcroft hide it from [redacted] (likely Congress or the courts),

          Ashcroft was ready to resign over it. He was hospitalized and incapable of

        • by rtb61 ( 674572 )

          So why the release? Are they finding it really hard to recruit people hence, "Very few working-level C.I.A. analysts were told about it." As in come join the CIA and NSA we are not all psychopaths douche bags who get sexually aroused by prying into everyone's privacy, the power, the power.

          Yep, they are not all evil and pathetic but until they start prosecuting the corrupt, they have no hope of being respected and that especially includes Darth Cheney, the number one conspirator behind all that mess.

        • by Agripa ( 139780 )

          As a practical matter the program was not unlawful if nobody with responsibility took action against it; the legislative branch did not refuse to fund it, the executive branch did not prosecute anybody responsible for it, and the judicial branch did not apply any 4th amendment remedies. There is plenty of blame to cover all of the Republicans and the Democrats including those who spoke against it but did not do enough to stop it. Talk is cheap.

      • by bigpat ( 158134 )

        That's not what the report said, though.

        The report said that the resources needed to be used more effectively.

        That is about as damning as an internal government report ever gets.

      • That's almost funny. The program wasn't as successful as expected because they didn't share the data widely enough.

        Almost funny. Like, they couldn't do useful analysis because they didn't share it with all the CIA analysts they should have?

        Unconstitutional much?

    • by PolygamousRanchKid ( 1290638 ) on Sunday April 26, 2015 @07:31AM (#49554287)

      The Russian security services told the FBI that the Boston Bombing Brothers were up to no good. The FBI did a perfunctorily check, and then let them go on with their terrorist work.

      The Secret Squirrels should not be monitoring all Americans. They should be tracking terrorists!

      • The Secret Squirrels should not be monitoring all Americans. They should be tracking terrorists!

        Great idea! Wonder why noone ever thought of that before.

        So, any ideas about how to go about "tracking terrorists"? I'm assuming you're going to start by identifying some of them? And then you're going to do what, exactly?

        No, there's not a whole lot of really good reason for warrantless (or even warranted) wiretapping of everyone. Nonetheless, security takes a bit more than "well, we should track terrorists

    • by Anonymous Coward

      What is obvious, Mr. Captain, is that the entire PATRIOT ACT and the entire spying program has done NOTHING.
      There have been no legit "terrorist" arrests, trials, convictions and detention in federal prison because of it.
      Thus there have been no legit "terrorist plots" on American soil disrupted because of it.

      You have been taxed at least $250 BILLION dollars for these programs under unconstitutional "laws" over the past 15 years.
      The rhetoric for the "wars" and bullshit military invasions of Iraq, Afghanistan,

  • by Alain Williams ( 2972 ) <addw@phcomp.co.uk> on Sunday April 26, 2015 @05:51AM (#49554105) Homepage

    1) Tell us that it is not effective; thus we need not worry about loss of privacy; thus we might we well let them continue ?

    2) It is not effective because they have not got enough money for XXX; so: please Mr congress critter - vote them some more money

    3) It is not effective; you need not worry about encrypting your communications; hopefully enough idiots will believe that!

    Pick one of the above or come out with more suggestions.

    • by swb ( 14022 ) on Sunday April 26, 2015 @08:11AM (#49554385)

      The summary seems to indicate that the value of "Stellarwind" wasn't clear because it was one of many sources and few had access to it, not that all NSA spying was seen as ineffective.

      The NSA does so much spying that it seems like it would be hard to ever calculate the marginal value of each additional unit of spying. Probably more so because of the fragmentary and unreliable nature of clandestine information and the need to develop multiple sources to achieve any kind of confidence about a particular conclusion or piece of information.

      The latter bit is probably what leads to never-ending development of new data sources and methods, especially as each new spying method becomes less and less specific and requires more and more analysis to tease out information. Call metadata doesn't tell you what was discussed or necessarily who was called. You need parallel data from some other source to tell you who is associated with those numbers, where they were, etc.

  • 1) Collect extensive intelligence from phone calls and internet activity of all Americans
    2) Don't tell other agencies about it
    3) ???
    4) PROFIT!

  • by rabbin ( 2700077 ) on Sunday April 26, 2015 @07:59AM (#49554353)
    http://video.pbs.org/video/236... [pbs.org] The recent Frontline documentary "American Terrorist" (which investigates American-born David Coleman Headley and his involvement in the Mumbai assault and the thwarted attack on a Danish newspaper) seemed to reach a similar conclusion. It was originally touted as an NSA bulk data collection success story by high level officials, but they had to backpedal as the truth emerged.

    The conclusion seems to be that while they are able to collect a vast amount of information, they are unable to process and analyze all of the information gathered and connect it to individuals that warrant investigation. And Headley was extremely messy in many situations (e.g. directly contacting wanted terrorist leaders) where others certainly are not--so messy that my confidence in the NSA's abilities has diminished (this is assuming bulk data collection is a good thing to begin with, and I don't think it is). The data collected mainly became useful *after* an incident rather than being used to thwart an attack.

    Perhaps things have changed by now as this is an investigation of something that happened several years ago, but I highly recommend the documentary.
  • by HangingChad ( 677530 ) on Sunday April 26, 2015 @08:02AM (#49554363) Homepage

    There is simply no way human beings can sort through that much data. That means relying on gadgets and software to do the sorting for the humans. Anyone who manages big data can tell you how corrupt most data sets really are. Names spelled different ways, bits of information incorrectly transcribed, copy errors, format errors, import errors are all low probability events but, when you're dealing with billions of records, there are a lot of them. Just in general, gadget security doesn't work.

    In nearly every terrorist event that's happened in the U.S., the FBI had tips from alert citizens. That was true for 9/11 and almost all of them in between. The FBI even interviewed the Boston Marathon bombers. HUMINT works.

    Funny that the FBI screw ups don't get more media attention. In nearly every case they didn't effectively use the information they had, so how is more information going to make things better?

    • by neilo_1701D ( 2765337 ) on Sunday April 26, 2015 @09:29AM (#49554571)

      Anyone who manages big data can tell you how corrupt most data sets really are. Names spelled different ways, bits of information incorrectly transcribed, copy errors, format errors, import errors are all low probability events but, when you're dealing with billions of records, there are a lot of them.

      As someone who has spent the better part of two weeks fruitlessly trying to get my Experian data to remotely resemble my Equifax data (and I have exactly 18 months of credit history), I can attest to that. Heck, even in a completely contained ERP system that controls a manufacturing warehouse (one of my clients), the issues that people can cause there are surprising.

      In nearly every case they didn't effectively use the information they had

      The number one problem of large datasets is not knowing what's in there, therefore not knowing really how to query the data to find out. Strator had a report on that maybe a year ago, discussing the 9/11 "intelligence failure" and the beacon-lit paths the hijackers left behind: essentially, since the FBI wasn't actively looking for people who might be planning a major operation, they never saw the clues.

      By way of analogy, if I'm sifting through a ledger table looking for (say) a mis-matched transaction, the odd voucher sequence a few rows up might be completely missed. You can't depend on a specific sequence of vouchers in general; that column looks like a lot of noise. But if I'm tracking down an inventory issue, that odd voucher sequence might just be the key.

      The point is, it's easy to blame people for missing the obvious after the fact. But that's 20/20 hindsight; the people who missed it may have been working on something much more pressing.

      so how is more information going to make things better?

      It can't and wont. More unfiltered data = more noise, and more noise can obscure a real signal or give the impression of a false signal.

    • by Livius ( 318358 )

      Because it looks flashy and high-tech, both the surveillance itself and the large sums in the budget line.

      It's for show, just like the TSA. And just like the TSA, they have to actually violate rights and/or molest people for the appearances to be convincing. Lawful/constitutional intelligence-gathering just isn't sexy enough.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    The program is un-constitutional and therefore needs to be dismantled and the people responsible for it tried for treason. The issue of effectiveness is separate and irrelevant.

  • There's always going to be an optimal balance between information and cognition. Our problem now is that we are gathering too much information for any automated or natural cognition equipment to handle in a useful way. If the NSA were made up of smarter people, they would be focusing far more heavily on AI and crowd-cognitive analysis techniques using humans, not big data.

  • by Opportunist ( 166417 ) on Sunday April 26, 2015 @10:21AM (#49554717)

    Usually when it comes to the whole security show spiel, there's little, if any, relevant information going public. Especially when it shows that the whole crap is just a big, useless black hole for pork barrel money. How often and how long have we been asking for anything that shows the whole TSA annoyance has anything coming close to resembling having a positive effect on security?

    But suddenly we get such a report without even asking for it? C'mon. What crony didn't pay his kickback in time so his project has to be axed?

  • by Anonymous Coward
    It is effective at gathering data on domestic political opponents. And ex-lovers. And whatever class du-jour is on the outs.
  • BS (Score:5, Insightful)

    by ruir ( 2709173 ) on Sunday April 26, 2015 @11:12AM (#49554883)
    They want to further the spying agenda, outlaw encryption and p2p technology because spying needs centralised servers (e.g. skype had to move to a centralized model), and want more funding. Gimme money money money. Ha, and they want to leer over your naked teen photos every time she crosses the border with her mobilel. And the code of your bank accounts and your emails too.
  • by future assassin ( 639396 ) on Sunday April 26, 2015 @12:18PM (#49555103) Homepage

    just like the DEA. Nothing is going to stop it now....

  • Commenters above have talked about the signal/noise problem, and they're right, but I don't think anyone has talked about why this problem exists. I have no direct evidence, but I'd bet that after 9/11, there was a high-level conversation in the administration something like this:

    "There might be terror cells all over the US, and we might be hit again! Can the NSA watch the electronic communications of all Muslims in the US?"

    "Sure, but we can't be sure of knowing who they all are. Besides, it would be consid

    • by AHuxley ( 892839 )
      The other change beyond the funding quantity was the prestige of advancement beyond just been invited in for signals support or an archive function for other expert mil and gov work.
      Real time work, setting policy was the new upgrade. New systems, contractors, linguistics, networks.
      The domestic and international telco networks as they have existed and exist now are not a problem in terms of scale or access for the NSA and GCHQ.
      Collect it all has always worked well given the all digital systems and fundin
  • by Jim Sadler ( 3430529 ) on Sunday April 26, 2015 @05:44PM (#49556443)
    We have seen too many incidents of outrageous police conduct lately and it surely indicates that a lot more outrageous police conduct takes place. Maybe it is high time for the public to invest in a lot more hidden cams designed not just to catch criminals but bad cops as well. The single most vital thing we could do as a society is to allow voice recording almost everywhere. bribes and corruption flourish when laws exist making it illegal to record conversations. If we simply had access to every single conversation that our people in congress have we would have a much better nation. The same is true inside businesses. A great deal of evil goes on in businesses. How useful would it have been to be able to recover conversations going on in the tobacco companies back in the 1950s? Millions of lives could have been saved in that one example alone. In the end the public really doesn't want justice.
    • by Agripa ( 139780 )

      We have seen too many incidents of outrageous police conduct lately and it surely indicates that a lot more outrageous police conduct takes place.

      A lot more takes place than is shown and this was even more the case in the past. This is reporting bias; the level of outrageous police conduct has changed much less then the increase in video evidence showing it.

  • I sure hope the Obama administration puts two and two together and realizes how wasteful mass surveillance programs are and try to end them.

    SPOILER: They will not.

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