(Photo : Wikimedia; Creative Commons)
Yesterday, Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian - the leading journalist behind the NSA metadata collection story - took a look at the Washington Post's profile of General Keith Alexander, director of the National Security Agency. In it, he found the "crux of the NSA story" in the phrase "collect it all." But that phrase isn't unique to the NSA. Big technology companies, like Google, share that ethos too.
Meditating on "collect it all," Greenwald finds the phrase to be "the obvious focal point for any responsible or half-way serious journalists" who are reporting on the NSA surveillance story. Greenwald broke the NSA story when he and journalists at the Washington Post published information provided by ex-NSA contractor Edward Snowden - who is now on the run from the U.S. government and seeking asylum from Russia.
For anyone living under a rock for the past few weeks, thanks to Snowden and Greenwald, the world found out that the National Security Agency (NSA) has been running electronic surveillance on a massive scale. Through the cooperation of technology and telecommunications companies as part of the PRISM program, the NSA has monitored humongous volumes of domestic and international emails, Internet searches, video chats, photos, voice over IP phone calls, file transfers, and probably just about anything else online that you can think of.
Companies like Microsoft (which owns the similarly cooperating company Skype), Yahoo, Google, Facebook, Apple, and AOL have all been named as giving some form of access to the NSA, and most of those companies have come forward providing some details about a few of the national security requests they've complied with. It's still unclear how much access these companies gave the government, but most have denied giving the NSA so-called "direct access." However, a recent revelation from Greenwald and Snowden showed that Microsoft helped the NSA crack its own encryption on secure web chats. The company also gave pre-encryption access to all of their email systems (Live, Outlook, and Hotmail), while Skype has cooperated as well, and it's clear that the NSA has had the ability to record video chats for about a year now.
NSA: Collect It ALL
Greenwald found the roots of the NSA's "collect it all" ethos in the Washington Post profile of the NSA's director, Gen. Alexander. During the Iraq war, Gen. Alexander and more than 100 teams of analysts were working on collecting and analyzing data that might lead to hidden bomb factories. But "rather than look for a single needle in the haystack," said the Post's profile, Alexander's approach was, "'Let's collect the whole haystack... Collect it all, tag it, store it... And whatever it is you want, you go searching for it."
Greenwald says that the NSA has now taken that approach to the entire U.S. populace, if not the world:
"The NSA is constantly seeking to expand its capabilities without limits. They're currently storing so much, and preparing to store so much more, that they have to build a massive, sprawling new facility in Utah just to hold all the communications from inside the US and around the world that they are collecting - communications they then have the physical ability to invade any time they want."
That is true, and was reported a year and a half ago, when James Bamford at Wired found that the U.S. was building a heavily fortified NSA "Utah Data Center" between the hills of Bluffsdale, Utah. The center is slated to be done by September 2013, and will be capable of holding a yottabyte, or a septillion bytes, of data - an amount so large, says Bamford, "that no one has yet coined a term for the next higher magnitude."
Google: Collect It All
But something else was reported about a year an a half ago, involving Google, which shows that the NSA's "collect everything" ethos is certainly not unique and that, if the NSA isn't doing it, Google, Yahoo, Apple (or any other company that can) will be collecting it all anyway. In April 2012, the Federal Communications Commission issued a report that confirmed that Google had been purposely snooping into individuals' unlocked WiFi networks with their StreetView cars - the cute little vehicles with the big cameras that take panoramic pictures for Google Maps.
When Google had been caught red handed a year before, they offered several excuses for their data-mining activities. First, it was meant to facilitate Android geo-location services, which was partially true. Then, it was just a mistake - left-over bit of code that had been accidentally used Google's WiFi sensing computers to grab too much data. Finally, there were reports that it was a lone engineer working on his or her own initiative - going rogue.
The F.C.C. found that Google's data collection code was documented and several Google employees - including a senior manager - knew that it was "intended to collect, store and review payload data, for possible use in other Google projects."
The report said that "for more than two years, Google's Street View cars collected names, addresses, telephone numbers, URLs, passwords, email, text messages, medical records, video and audio files, and other information from Internet users in the United States."
In my original report on this topic, I asked author and tech expert Clay Shirky to explain why Google would want to record all of this stuff. What use could they possibly derive from all of this random data?
Shirky responded, "There is no such thing as random data from Google's point of view." Any data could be useful to analyze for any number of purposes - and it doesn't matter for Google if those purposes haven't been thought of yet. Google, like any other internet technology company (and now, we know, the NSA) is compelled to just collect everything they can - because they can.
"Google is the first company to be born in an age of practically unlimited storage," said Shirky. "The same way Facebook will always encourage people to over-share, Google will always try to collect as much data as possible." In other words, collecting any data it can (and can get away with) is in the company's cultural DNA and will happen because it can. As it will with every IT company that provides free services in exchange for our participation in them, and the data they garner by our participation.
Keeping our data out of others' hands - whether it's hackers, the NSA, or private companies (which also work with the NSA) - is a question of convenience versus privacy.
And as we're continually pressing "Okay" on terms of service agreements, even though we don't read them, because we want that new app or service, it's clear that the majority of the American public is much more interested in convenience.