The Other Problem with the Obama Proposal: Who Does the Pizza Joint Review?

I’m sure I’ll spend all day discussing the various proposals to “fix” the dragnet.

I’ve already shown why the House Intelligence bill is not an improvement and should not be discussed by credible people as one.

And on Twitter and briefly in that piece, I described two problems that aren’t addressed at all in either of these proposals, including President Obama’s plan laid out by Charlie Savage.

  • The Reasonable Articulable Suspicion standard is still far too lenient, allowing the government to engage in a broad digital stop-and-frisk system
  • Once supplied to NSA, it will presumably subject tens or hundreds of thousands of innocent people to the full array of NSA’s tradecraft

Finally, though, there’s one other problem, which directly affects how many people get subjected to such analytical tradecraft, a problem identified by no other person than … Barack Obama.

Relying solely on the records of multiple providers, for example, could require companies to alter their procedures in ways that raise new privacy concerns.

I suspect one of those privacy concerns, as I laid out in this post, is the necessity to make analytical judgments about what high volume numbers distort the chaining system.

Someone needs to go in and take out such high volume numbers — which include voice mail access numbers, telemarketers, and pizza joints — otherwise almost everyone is two degrees of separation from everyone else.

For two of these functions, I assume the telecoms can do the task as easily as the NSA. (The dirty secret is they conduct the same kind of 3-degrees analysis as the government does!) They know what their own (and reseller phone companies) voice mail access numbers are, after all, and surely they track the telemarketer spam that weighs down their system.

It’s the pizza joints that have me — that always have me — worried.

Pizza joints absolutely distort the contact chaining system. Keith Alexander learned this when the contact chaining he was doing — and he used to claim he had mapped out all the evil people tied to Iraq — showed everyone to be guilty because they frequented the same pizza joints.

When he ran INSCOM and was horning in on the NSA’s turf, Alexander was fond of building charts that showed how a suspected terrorist was connected to a much broader network of people via his communications or the contacts in his phone or email account.

“He had all these diagrams showing how this guy was connected to that guy and to that guy,” says a former NSA official who heard Alexander give briefings on the floor of the Information Dominance Center. “Some of my colleagues and I were skeptical. Later, we had a chance to review the information. It turns out that all [that] those guys were connected to were pizza shops.”

Nevertheless, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and sometimes a tie through a pizza joint can be a very important tie through a pizza joint, as I believe Gerry’s Italian Kitchen was in the case of the Tsarnaev brothers. If NSA purged the pizza joint in that case, they may have eliminated some of the most important evidence tying the brothers (or at least Tamerlan) to the Waltham murder in 2011.

So who, under this new system, will do the pizza joint analysis?

If the phone companies do it (which I doubt, because of cases like the Tsarnaevs), it will mean even more intensive data mining of customer data while it remains in their hands.

If the NSA does it, it means a lot more totally innocent people will have their data turned over to NSA to do as they wish.

Don’t get me wrong. The Obama proposal is an improvement off the status quo. But for these reasons, including the pizza joint problem, it still doesn’t comply with the Fourth or First Amendments.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

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 the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, 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 and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

13 replies
  1. Snarki, child of Loki says:

    No, no, no…target drone strikes on the telemarketers, and a grateful public will forgive all past sins.

    Just don’t get them mixed up with the pizza joints: “I’ll have a large pie, meat lover special, hold the Hellfire”

  2. john francis lee says:

    The only acceptable proposal …

    Amendment IV

    The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

    • chronicle says:

      “The only acceptable proposal …”

      Proposal? And here I thought it was the law of the land. Dumb me.

      The only acceptable proposal: Arrest and prosecute those who tried to re-write the IV the Amendment, for treason. And then set up a War Crime tribunal. It’s time to start chlorinating the WDC cesspool.

    • chronicle says:

      “The only acceptable proposal …”

      Proposal? And here I thought it was the law of the land. Dumb me.

      The only acceptable proposal: Arrest and prosecute those who tried to re-write the IV Amendment, for treason. And then set up a War Crime tribunal. It’s time to start chlorinating the WDC cesspool.

  3. joanneleon says:

    I had somehow missed the story where Alexander actually did map out false “bad guys” because of pizza joints. I know that a pizza delivery guy was the first thing that a lot of people thought of when they heard about the three hops analysis and considered their own network of people who they call, realizing immediately how easily they could get caught up in the dragnet. So all these average Joes immediately realized the pizza guy is a major issue with this kind of analysis but Keith Alexander the genius didn’t? And he took that data and did a big presentation on it? That’s truly scary. Really freaking scary when you consider that NSA helps with targeted assassinations.

  4. jo6pac says:

    Don’t get me wrong. The Obama proposal is an improvement off the status quo. But for these reasons, including the pizza joint problem, it still doesn’t comply with the Fourth or First Amendments.

    It’s not an improvement, I think you were right about they will just outsource it to vendors but have access. I have a really hard time believing the potus. He says what everyone wants to hear while behind the curtain the work goes on. No one is held accountable and no one goes to jail.

  5. jerryy says:

    Moving from three-hop searching to two-hop searching does not reduce innocent peoples exposure to accidentally being caught up in these witch hunts, it just slows down how fast they are being included.
    .

    It is quite easy to see, ask where does 3^x = 2^y ? Answer: eventually everywhere. Overlay the graphs, and then slide one graph to the left and points from one cover the other. x = y * [ ln(2) / ln(3) ]
    .

    Even if you take out the pizza joint phone numbers, et al, a two-hop approach will still eventually get all the remaining phone numbers, it just takes a little longer.

    • Snarki, child of Loki says:

      When you take pizza joints off the list, then you’ll get terrorist pizza joints.

      Which is just totally wrong on many levels. I prefer the traditional MAFIA pizza, not the new-fangled halal goat pizza.

      • jerryy says:

        Yeah those mafia connected pizza joints in NY that made headlines back in the 90s are probably hoping they will be put on the ‘do not investigate’ list. :^)

        Halal goat pizza? Nah, halal mutton pizza dude… with extra cheese.

  6. What Constitution? says:

    It would appear that the risks presented by pizza joints simply may soon be perceived to be intolerably high for a Free Society due to their potential use as a focal point of Terra. Accordingly, it must therefore be the logical conclusion that pizza joints should be banned. Soon, pizza will only be sold in the freezer section of your grocery store, which will be announced right after the NYSE freezes trading in frozen pizza stocks.

    Now — of course — nobody in their right mind would ever believe that the Government would take our pizza delivery away in the name of “Security”. That’s obvious, the risk of open revolt cautions against such an excess so it won’t happen. But this proves too much: if pizza joints are so integral to the interwoven fabric of society that they couldn’t be abolished to protect us from Terra, it’s reciprocally obvious that not monitoring pizza joints necessarily creates a gaping hole in the efficacy of our Security Apparatus. And if that’s true, then it’s just self-evident that the NSA’s argument that they need to “collect everything” in order for the Dragnet to “work” is pierced through the heart. Even Judge Pauley would have to call that unconstitutional….. So, if we’re entitled to our expectation of unfettered pizza delivery as a condition of constitutional liberty, surely we’re entitled to discontinuance of the NSA Dragnet too.

    This really isn’t all that complex after all.

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