The Misplaced Enthusiasm for Obama’s 2-Hop “Change”

I’m seeing a lot of enthusiasm about President Obama’s promise to limit the NSA to 2 hops on its phone dragnet.

Effective immediately, we will only pursue phone calls that are two steps removed from a number associated with a terrorist organization instead of three.

But it’s not that big of a limit.

As far back as 2011, the NSA had standardized on 2-hops, only permitting a 3rd with special approval. (See page 13.)

While the BR Order permits contact chaining for up to three hops, NSA has decided to limit contact chaining to only two hops away from the RAS-approved identifier without prior approval from your Division management to chain the third hop.

So in effect, Obama has replaced the NSA’s internal directive limiting the hops to 2 with his own directive (which can be pixie dusted with no notice) limiting the hops to 2.

Also, can anyone explain what the word “pursue” means in Obama’s promise?

The concerns about the dragnet arise, in large part, from other things: the audit-free access of the data integrity analysts, the opacity of whether they do what they claim they do (which has as much impact on the extent of the spying as the number of hops), and what they do with it afterwards. Not to mention the sheer hubris of even creating that database of every American’s phone-based relationships.

Don’t get me wrong: given a choice, I’d take 2-hops over 3 (or 4, as could be kluged until 2009).

But it is largely a continuation of the dragnet in its current form, not any end to the dragnet itself.

9 replies
  1. john francis lee says:

    Kill the NSA. It’s run amuk. There is no reining it in. Kill it.

    We do need a national security agency … one that keeps us secure from the like of the traitors and criminals at the NSA. A new undertaking far away from the f*cking military. I nominate the Post Office.

    Obama is a worthless stooge … betrayal at every step of the way.

  2. Peterr says:

    I suspect this was a decision based on mathematics, with an eye toward PR. Mathematically, the more hops one makes, the more chaff gets pulled into any given search. The likelihood of significant data arising at three or more removes that would NOT appear via one or two steps approaches zero.

    So given this mathematical statement, the PR value of drawing back the program moves to the fore. It allows Obama to claim the high ground, while conceding virtually nothing.

    And there’s nothing here that precludes chaining multiple numbers. Phone A is connected with phones B1-Bn. Chaining out on these n phones brings up the connection between phone Bx and Cy — and what do you know, but Cy is suspected of being a terrorist, so you can chain further with phones D1-Dn, and each of them with phones E. Thus, you’ve followed the chain five steps from A to E, without a problem.

  3. Saul Tannenbaum says:

    My concern about the dragnet starts with the assault on common sense that allows the NSA to collect this databause by saying it’s not actually collected until someone looks at it. That might work for Schroedinger’s Cat (or not, if the cat dies) but for the 4th Admendment.

    But the whole “take it out of internal agency regs and make it a presidential directive to make it ok” is the MO of the Obama administration when it comes to national security. Having heard some of these folks talk about this, I think they genuinely believe this matters. I find that tragically sad.

  4. TarheelDem says:

    They’ve got all that 3-hop data that they pulled before today. Backing off to 2-hops just slows down the cost of acquiring new disk drives. How rapidly does the data for “all the info in the world” change?

    They’re not discarding the prior data from that third hop, are they?

  5. kris says:

    I don’t think “hubris” is an adequate excoriation of our government’s amassing a database of all our phone (and internet, and text, and picture, and search, etc.)-based relationships. “Illegal” and “clearly violating the spirit and intent of the Fourth (and other) amendment(s)” and “mimicking the worst authoritarian excesses of totalitarian regimes we wish to hold up as examples of what we are not” would be more appropriate.

  6. Jcee says:

    With the exception of a minority of the engaged, it’s disturbing the extent to which Americans by-and-large have acquiesced in the face of the liberties being taken by this administration. Maybe it stems from an overwhelming sense of powerlessness and resignation, or the thought that dissent could be self-defeating… might attract more focused scrutiny. What is worse are those talking heads on MSM who find ways of justifying this totally outrageous abuse of power. Whatever “correction” Obama claims to be making is just another piece of political theater. At this point people who take anything this guy says at face value are badly in need of a reality check.

  7. bloodypitchfork says:

    Prez Houdini announces 3 will now become 2, while retaining the right to add 1 if they want to. Or as many as they deem fit at anytime they deem. I mean, didn’t you get the memo? “Today is no different.”

    Reality check #1. The CIA/NSA ARE the government. Congress is a debate team to codify CIA/NSA’s authority while laundering the funds. The Executive is their get out of jail free pass when the planet discovers what they do. The FISC is their rubber stamp. The rest of the Judicial is the Supranational Sovereign official arbiter of their power. The FBI rounds up those who refute it. The DHS is the Federal Secret Police. The people simply pay for it by virtue of an IRS gun to their head regardless of who they vote into the Legislative and Executive branches. Today is no different than yesterday. Or 50 years ago. JFK was living proof.

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