John Inglis Explains Why (US-Based Collection of) Internet Metadata Doesn’t Work

Steve Inskeep got a very long interview with NSA Deputy Director John Inglis. It suffers from the same problem that just about every interview the NSA has done since the Snowden leaks started has — because the NSA will only allow friendlies or non-beat writers to do interviews, NSA can avoid many real questions and falsely represent the facts (such as, just one example, what the Review Group really said about the legality of NSA’s programs).

But Inskeep did a good job, and succeeded in doing something that no one else has: get a real explanation for why the NSA gave up its (US-based collection of) Internet “metadata.”

Inskeep starts by suggesting NSA was unable to meet the requirements of the program. But Inglis insists that wasn’t the problem. Rather, it was that Internet companies keep no billing records for individual emails.

INSKEEP: And it was abandoned because it was too hard to comply with the safeguards and because it was judged not to be practical, it wasn’t worth the cost.

INGLIS: It was abandoned principally for the latter reason, which is it was just too hard to make operationally workable. In theory, and especially given that people move more and more to emails, right, that kind of communication, in theory it would be even more valuable to try to detect a plot that moves from a foreign domain to a domestic domain using email metadata. The challenge is, is that the business model within the private sector doesn’t support that. You and I grew up in an America where there were local calls, long distance calls, and the telephone company made their money by charging you for the number of local calls or the number of long distance calls for some duration. And for that reason they tracked that information. You could go to the telephone company and say, how many calls and what number called what number.

And they would actually track that with great precision. Email didn’t get its start that way. The first email account I had from a company with three letters said, for $6.95 a month you can write a million emails or one email, we don’t care. We’re going to send you, sell you a bandwidth. And so there was no material business interest on their part to track the metadata. They just wanted to sell you access to the pipe. Given that that information it doesn’t exist, it’s hard to recreate it. It became operationally very difficult to do that. It is theoretically possible, but very expensive. And we’ve decided in late 2011 that while we thought we could meet the requirements of the court, we were quite confident that we could, the only way we could proceed was in so doing, that it was operationally too difficult to do that because the business model was so different.

Ultimately, of course, Inglis is confirming Inskeep’s first assertion: that the NSA couldn’t meet the Court’s requirements that it not collect content that is also routing information, because the telecoms, from which NSA collected this data, only had access to the data the NSA wanted at a content level.

NSA could meet FISC’s requirements. But to do so gave them little meaningful data, because the telecom level of content isn’t all that useful.

Of course, they can collect that data elsewhere, in places where such content-based restrictions aren’t in place.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

6 replies
  1. thatvisionthing says:

    Went to NPR and searched the transcript — no mention of Leon, Smith v. Maryland, or The Merchant of Venice, though that’s what I was hearing in my mind as I read this post.

    But I did see that Steve Inskeep did a story on Judge Leon in 2008, when Leon ordered the release of five Bosnian citizens from Guantanamo: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=97295936 – a worthy read, though it doesn’t name the citizens, though ew did a story at the time that does – it was Lakdar Boumedienne and four others: http://www.emptywheel.net/2008/11/20/boumediene-wins-again/

  2. thatvisionthing says:

    Now I’m reading through the transcript – how could you let this language pass?

    INGLIS: Well, I think you’ve hit it. They’re damaging on several counts. First and foremost, we’ve revealed quite a bit through these unauthorized disclosures to our adveraries about how we express our interest in them, the means by which we might divine some intelligence information about them. Such that those who are keenly paying attention to that might then avoid our interest. And so we can say with great confidence that terrorists and rogue nations have been paying attention and have begun to take the necessary steps to invalidate the means and methods by which we would get intelligence on them. But it also has harmed relationships between the executive branch and other components of the government.

    As accusations have been made, again, in my view, most of which have been shown to be false, of activities within the executive branch that weren’t fully understood or authorized by either the legislative branch or authorized by the judicial branch. And we’ve had to work hard to essentially understand what was true and what we have done and how we’ve exercised these authorities.

    Ok, I’m gaping. Pointing and gaping.

  3. thatvisionthing says:

    He detects a problem!

    INGLIS: The American public is certainly in a state of shock and dismay about what have been alleged abuses by NSA.

    But no problem! Next sentence:

    The presidential review group recently concluded that there have been no illegalities or abuses by NSA.

    See? Nothing.

  4. emptywheel says:

    @thatvisionthing: I DID tweet out the “rogue nations” bit.

    But to point to all the BS coming from Inglis would have taken my entire day. It was about then, however, that I bemoaned NSA’s ability to only do interviews with friendlies and/or non-beat writers. But I think Inskeep did some of the best work out there, for someone who hasn’t been breathing this exclusively for 6 months.

  5. option3 says:

    You write “why the NSA gave up its (US-based collection of) Internet ‘metadata'”. Am I wrong?…they have certainly not given it up. That’s what the court cases are in part all about. Did you mean it in a moral sense? Please correct me if I am mistaken but that the 215 metadata program – the ‘phone dragnet’ to use your language – is in full effect. Right?

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