In the summer of 2008, Gen. Keith Alexander, the recently resigned director of the National Security Agency, posed an audacious question to intelligence analysts at the Menwith Hill eavesdropping station in North Yorkshire, in the United Kingdom: “Why can’t we collect all the signals all the time?”
Since Edward Snowden’s revelations began, that quote has gone a long way to color the NSA’s seemingly insatiable appetite for data. Former administration officials who worked for Alexander have similarly described the cowboy-like regime of intelligence-gathering that defined his tenure, calling his strategy “the same as Google’s: I need to get all of the data.”
Amusingly, it wasn’t until a recent interview with comedian and former Daily Show correspondent John Oliver that the general got grilled on this point. “You do understand that ‘collect everything’ is also the motto of a hoarder,” he told Alexander during the premiere of his new talk show. “That’s the fundamental principle which ends up with someone living alongside 1,500 copies of newspapers from the 1950s and six mummified cats.”
Alexander smoothly responded that his “collect-it-all” quip was taken out of context, and only relevant to “specific problems”—in this particular case, the dramatic rise of U.S. troop casualties in Iraq. But additional Snowden documents released in Glenn Greenwald’s new book, No Place to Hide, seem to further illustrate the “collect-it-all” mentality as a recurring mantra within the NSA and its allied intelligence agencies. Indeed, much to Oliver’s humorous point, some of the material reads like dispatches from a Hoarders Anonymous convention.
Chief among them is a graphic presented at a secret meeting of the “Five Eyes” surveillance alliance in 2011 describing a “New Collection Posture” with incredibly explicit goals: “Collect it All; Process it All; Exploit it All; Partner it All; Sniff it All,” and, most chillingly, “Know it All.” Another document, from British spy agency Government Communications Headquarters, names a program that intercepts satellite communications, dubbed “Asphalt,” describing it as a “‘Collect it All’ proof-of-concept system.” A 2009 memo from the NSA operations center in Misawa, Japan, similarly touts its newly improved interception capabilities as “bringing our enterprise one step closer to collecting it all.”
“They don’t need a reason to collect information. That’s a mischaracterization of what the NSA does,” said Greenwald on Tuesday, during an event for his new book at Cooper Union in New York. “The reason they are collecting things is because those are communications that exist on the earth, and because they can.”
A point commonly made by NSA critics is that these dragnets collect not enough signal and too much noise. Several internal documents give that credence, including one that admits the NSA “collects far more content than is routinely useful to analysts.” A top-secret chart in Greenwald’s book displaying “Current Volumes and Limits” for data storage shows that the agency collected upwards of 20 billion “communications events” per day in 2012, the vast majority of which were stored in various databases. In December of the same year, a program called “Shelltrumpet” processed its 1 trillionth metadata record; almost half that amount was processed in 2012 alone.
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