The NSA, as intelligence historian Matthew Aid shows, collects so much information online that even its mistakes are enormous. Every day, it actively analyzes the rough equivalent of what’s inside the Library of Congress and “touches,” to use the agency’s term, another 2,990 Libraries’ worth of data. With such a huge haul, even the most infrequent of error rates — one in a hundred thousand, say — still produces terabytes and terabytes of improperly-harvested data. It still means thousands and thousands of people are wrongly caught in the surveillance driftnet.
The NSA’s defenders will point to the many times the agency’s intelligence analysts followed the rules, and got things right. But that misses the point; no one expects these analysts, or the systems they use, to be flawless. The problem is that the surveillance net is so very large that even the most miniscule of imperfections can have outsized impact. And that calls into question whether the NSA’s intelligence-collection efforts have grown too big for their own good.
The electronic spies at the National Security Agency have tried lately to play down the amount of Internet traffic they inspect — and play up how central that monitoring is to stopping terrorist attacks. Neither one of those arguments is entirely true. Yes, the NSA claimed in a recently released white paper that it “touches” only 1.6 percent of the planet’s online data, but the agency neglected to note that this is roughly equivalent to the Library of Congress’s entire textual collection, inspected 2,990 times every day.