NSA: The “Half-Bacon Agency”

My mom’s in town, so I’ll be doing light posting over the next several days.

But I did want to emphasize the rather startling news that came out of yesterday’s House Judiciary Committee on the NSA spying programs.

NSA Director John Inglis revealed that the FISA Court permits the government to do three jumps from an initial number tied to a phone number reasonably believed to be tied to terrorism (or relevant to Iran, though that search criteria didn’t get mentioned at all in the parts of the hearing I watched).

Three degrees of separation!

Remember, some years ago, every single person in the US could be connected via six degrees — the old Kevin Bacon game. There’s some evidence that that number has become smaller — perhaps as small as 3 (I’ve seen more scientific numbers that say it is 4.5 or thereabouts).

In any case, if the US is using the excuse of terror to get three jumps deep into US person associations, then this program is even more intrusive then they’ve let on.

One thing I didn’t see disclosed yesterday? To what extent the government claims these 3- (or 2, which — IIRC — Deputy Attorney General James Cole said was their most productive layer) degrees of separation from someone claimed in an articulation not closely reviewed has ties to terrorism. Is talking to someone who talks to someone who talks to someone who is a terrorist used, in secret, to claim people are agents of a foreign power?

In any case, this means the NSA has been spending its time playing 3 degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon in secret.

15 replies
  1. lefty665 says:

    You can search some of the content all of the time, and all of the meta all of the time. That means it’s just a matter of time before you search everything. With three hops the cycle time for searching it all is getting shorter.

    Remember too that all voice and data are being screened for key words all the time. Total Information Awareness incarnate.

    Mavis Beacon better watch out. Her name is too much like that Bacon guy. She could be in trouble too.

  2. lefty665 says:

    Here’s where it can go. Hedges et al lost on the NDAA. Hedges notes:

    “It means that the state can use the military, overturning over two centuries of domestic law, to use troops on the streets to seize U.S. citizens, strip them of due process and hold them indefinitely in military detention centers. States that accrue to themselves this kind of power, history has shown, will use it.”

    Alexander has military forces under his command at the Cyber Command. How few hops does one have to have before being “deemed to consort with terrorists” by a one stop shop from intercept to disappearings?


  3. Citizen92 says:

    So something akin to this?

    Wachovia Checking Account Customer – Wachovia Bank – Terrorism

    Only three jumps. So where does that get us?

  4. jayackroyd (@jayackroyd) says:

    @Citizen92: The number of jumps really depends on how you define “know” in the Kevin Bacon scenario or “have communicated with” in the NSA scenario. If, for instance, public exchanges with a Citizen92’s nym count or posting on Marcy’s blog counts, you’re now two away from Snowden.

    Or suppose you write to the NYT ombud to complain about A-Rod coverage or send in an LTE to bitch about their dissing your favorite Tahiti resort destination. That you do with your real name, and they always write back a receipt of message note. So now you’re one hop from people like Daniel Ellsberg (or me-I write to the ombud a couple of times a month) which, again, puts you one hop from Glenn.

  5. allan says:

    Throwing in wrong phone numbers and junk phone calls (like the one I just got on my cell – “Do not hang up. This is a very important message about your credit rating …”), the average number of hops needed to connect anyone to a suspected bad guy is likely well below the 4.5 from the research article quoted.
    We’re all in the haystack now.

  6. lefty665 says:

    @allan: We are the haystack. The question is what it takes to transmogrify us into needles. That’s a problem when NSA treats us all as being on the wrong side of an AUMF.

    @jayackroyd Think what it does to the journalists communications too. No warrant needed.

  7. joanneleon says:

    When they collect all that data on all of the people within three hops, what happens to it? I’m a bit confused. They say that if it’s US person data, they are supposed to destroy it on sight. But does just the fact that they are within three hops give them the justification to store all the data they hoover up? What is this thing about destroying data on sight if it is US person data?

    In other words, when they grab all the data on the three hop query, do they then store it all in their data base? Does it include content as well as metadata?

  8. lefty665 says:

    @joanneleon: They collect first and store it ALL for later search, screening for key words and other stuff in the process. Phone, email, web, credit card transactions, everything they can get their hands on. They want it all, more than a billion records every day. Haystacks ‘R US.

    3 hops describes how deep they dig into the data when something catches their eye. Yes, meta data leads to content, and vice versa.

    Weasel words intentionally obscure what’s happening. They consider that until a human being actually looks at something you have not been searched. Gathering it all up, storing it and rooting through it is not a search. So you see, everything is hunky dory and we can all just say “Thank you General Keith for keeping us safe from TERRAH” and go back to sleep.

    It all goes here: http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2012/03/ff_nsadatacenter/ Chase the Bamford links in this article for an education on what’s happening now. He’s the best one around on NSA. Read all his books too. “Shadow Factory” especially for the story about how they came to collect it all after 911. “Puzzle Palace” and “Body of Secrets” for the history of NSA. Snowden has not told us much that’s new, we do owe him for getting everyone’s attention.

  9. peasantparty says:

    They’ve gone “Footloose”!

    The problem is that it is not just dancing on public grounds, but in my own yard. Nothing they have said to explain this so far jives with our Constitution, Bill of Rights, and Declaration of Independence.

    Either they announce that all three of the above has been removed by the current Administration and Congress, or they start the boogie back and get off the floor routines. Why on earth would they want to store for years calls and conversations between family and friends of normal Citizens? The only reason I can think of is to have some small dot of a reason to harm you in the future if you don’t fall on your knees to whatever they intend to do.

  10. x174 says:


    one of the big things that we have Snowden to thank for is that he has given us copies of the documents.

    with these documents, organizations, groups and individuals now have standing to bring cases before the courts.

    cf. ACLU Files Lawsuit Challenging Constitutionality of NSA Phone Spying Program


    good explanation of Der proceB nevertheless

  11. JTMinIA says:

    One of my collaborators studies terrorism (and has the mondo grants to prove it). I assume that he is already one jump away, given who he must talk to in order to do his work. I would be the second jump. By reading this, you’re within three.

    Sorry about that.

  12. mbair says:

    Ok – so lets do some arithmetic. They admit investigating 300 primary phone numbers and at 3 hops – 2.5 million per person, this come to 750 million Americans have been investigated. Well, I guess there must be some duplication here, but still nearly every single American has been investigated multiple times. This is Orwell’s 1984 and Obama is Big Brother.

  13. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Personally, I think this is a bit of distraction. If the “collect it all” theme is true, then degrees of relatedness are irrelevant. The government will acquire all data it can gain access to, regardless of its relatedness to a purportedly legitimate target. The “connected to” meme is a shiny object.

    The “collect it all” policy does seem consistent with the imperative of America’s idiosyncratic view of capitalism, one tenet of which is that every business organization must grow or die. Share prices – and executive bonuses – depend heavily on the prospect, the anticipation, not the fact of future growth.

    What better way to cement the current corporate/governmental bond than to follow the collect it all policy? Collection, retention and “analysis” is performed overwhelmingly by the private sector. Conveniently, it’s now done in a way that is exempt from normal disclosure to shareholders and public scrutiny. (State secrets, dontchaknow.) New forms of data retention, and endless innovations in its “analysis” are guaranteed a lucrative, virtually risk-free future. So, too, the industry that makes the hardware and software that enable collection itself.

    It’s very like the business and political arrangements that grew up in the 1950’s between the bomb and its related security-delivery-protection-propaganda machinery. Even more than the drug culture and purported war against it, the bomb culture became a central part of American life. It infiltrated its way into missile silos and manned bombers; to government departments and foreign and domestic policy; to academic budgets; to security clearances, red scares, witch hunts, and Dr. Strangelove. It affected life in every local police department, townhouse, ranch, farm, suburb, city apartment, PTA and union meeting, and unemployment line in America.

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