Saturday, January 14, 2006

Interview with NSA Whistleblower

Laura Rozen of War and Piece caught this interview with NSA whistleblower Russell Tice at Reasononline. Here's a few excerpts:
REASON: You've described technologies capable of sifting through vast numbers of communications and pinpointing very specific information that intelligence analysts are looking for. What can you say about how that kind of technology is being used?

Tice: I can't say how an intelligence agency uses it, because that would be classified. Then the FBI would have shackles and cuffs waiting on me real soon, so I have to be careful what I say. But we can talk about the technologies and we can use hypotheticals and we can use wiggle words.

If you wanted to, you could suck in an awful lot of information. The biggest constraint you're going to have is the computing power you need to do it. You need to have some huge computers to crunch that kind of stuff. More than likely you're talking about picking it up in a digital format and analyzing it depending on how the program is written depending on whether it's audio or digital recognition you're talking about, the computing power is phenomenal for that sort of thing. Especially if you're talking about mass volumes, if you're talking about hundreds of thousands of, say, telephone communications or something like that, calls of people just like you and me, like we're talking now.

(snip)

REASON: There's always a problem looking for low-frequency events in a large population, even with a very good filter. How big a problem do you think false positives are?

Tice: It's going to be a huge problem. Huge. That's going to be your number one concern insofar as false positives are ultimately your error rate. The ultimate goal, more than likely in our hypothetical scenario, is to filter this thing down enough so that you can put it into human analysts' hands. The ultimate filter, the ultimate computer, is the human brain.

(snip)

REASON: What aspect of that, within the parameters of what you're able to talk about, concerned you?

Tice: The lack of oversight, mainly—when a problem arose and I raised concerns, the total lack of concern that anyone could be held accountable for any illegality involved. And then these things are so deep black, the extremely sensitive programs that I was a specialist in, these things are so deep black that only a minute few people are cleared for these things. So even if you have a concern, it's things in many cases your own supervisor isn't cleared for. So you have literally nowhere to go.
First of all, what I'm hearing and reading about the NSA seems to involve several different programs going on inside the US and involving American citizens. We're far from understanding or knowing exactly what these programs are even in a general sense. Nor do we know what safeguards are in place to prevent political abuse.

Second, on the largest scale, we seem to be talking about data mining which is different than targeting a specific bad guy who is making calls to the United States.

Third, we may in addition be talking about bad guys calling someone in the US who calls someone who calls someone who calls someone, etc; along a rapidly growing chain, this very quickly leads to innocent people being watched who have nothing to do with the original bad guy; it also leads to very large numbers of people being monitored.

Now some of the supporters of data mining are trying to argue that the electronics filter out large numbers of innocent people. Notice, however, that for such a electronic spying system to work, the number of false positives has to be fairly high by definition. This means a lot of data involving innocent people has to be followed up by human analysis and occassionally, some field work; it can't be avoided. If the followups are being done without warrants, we have a problem. In fact, we seem to have problems all along the chain of programs that we have little understanding of and apparently, if Tice is right, that we have little assurance that are being properly supervised.

For five years, the Bush Administration has demonstrated a level of incompetence that has rarely been seen in our nation's history. As the war in Iraq amply demonstrates, putting garbage into America's intelligence system and combining that with political pressure only generates more garbage. Without accountability from Congress, and without demands from the American people for that accountability, the problems cannot be fixed. Nor can the growing abuses be held in check.

Terrorism is a real problem, and it has to be addressed, and there are proper ways to do so, but I fear the slow erosion of the US Constitution under Bush has become the bigger problem.

2 Comments:

Anonymous S.W. Anderson said...

Tice: "The lack of oversight, mainly—when a problem arose and I raised concerns, the total lack of concern that anyone could be held accountable for any illegality involved."

Craig:"For five years, the Bush Administration has demonstrated a level of incompetence that has rarely been seen in our nation's history."


Those two dead-on statements say it all. It's simply unbelievable that the U.S. is in its current situation. It's like coming out of a coma and discovering you've awakened to a nightmare that's for real.

3:50 PM  
Blogger panopticonman said...

Tice's references to "deep black" reminds me of the CIA's term used for offshore interrogation facilities: "black sites" but also the term "black factory" used by business consultants to describe a place where consultants go when they're doing an open-ended study that no one will read.

Makes me kind of think NSA and McKinsey operatives and their methods areone in the same.

12:41 PM  

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