Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Bigger Haystacks, Smaller needles:

When we discovered that the NSA was recording hundreds of thousands of domestic communications without a warrant, an inevitable scenario developed: Apologists would say, “Okay, make them stop. We'll just be less safe from terrorists.” And then the rest of this scenario is silence. No one seems to have had the presence of mind to explain, on the spot, why that apology is likely very silly.

Security from terrorism costs money, and we have only so much to spend. The NSA program was obviously quite expensive - state of the art pattern matching to the data – and there are many other ways the same money could be spent. (A hint: protect our chemical plants.) And how many terrorists did the NSA catch? We'll probably never know if they tracked anyone down, but a story in the New York Times today clarifies just how expensive the program was.

I must say that when I first read about what they were doing, my reaction was to imagine a gigantic new haystack – the domestic phone data – and wonder if there might be any needles therein. But I didn't imagine this: that the NSA flooded the FBI with poor leads based on their data. FBI agents had to check out many vague suspicions, and according to this quote, never found anything.

Do you feel safer from terrorists now, knowing that the NSA was wasting the FBI's time?
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