Moon of Alabama Brecht quote
July 15, 2013

"Collect It All" Is Illegal, Stupid And Dangerous

The Washington Post has a somewhat schizophrenic piece on General Alexander, the head of the National Security Agency and of the military Cyber Command. The piece starts with lauding Alexander for a few paragraphs but then goes into some rather unflattering details of what the man has been doing. The general's approach is to "collect it all" and it started not in the United States but in Iraq where the U.S. military was totally unable to control the insurgency and tried in vane to get ahead of the game with total spying:
[T]he NSA director, Gen. Keith B. Alexander, wanted more than mere snippets. He wanted everything: Every Iraqi text message, phone call and e-mail that could be vacuumed up by the agency’s powerful computers.

“Rather than look for a single needle in the haystack, his approach was, ‘Let’s collect the whole haystack,’ ” said one former senior U.S. intelligence official who tracked the plan’s implementation. “Collect it all, tag it, store it. . . . And whatever it is you want, you go searching for it.”

What is good for unsuccessfully fighting an insurgency in Iraq, as earlier in other places, must also be good for controlling U.S. citizens and the rest of the world. Thus the "collect it all" scheme was extended to the United States as well as the globe:
[A]s he did in Iraq, Alexander has pushed hard for everything he can get: tools, resources and the legal authority to collect and store vast quantities of raw information on American and foreign communications.
“He is absolutely obsessed and completely driven to take it all, whenever possible,” said Thomas Drake, a former NSA official and whistleblower. The continuation of Alexander’s policies, Drake said, would result in the “complete evisceration of our civil liberties.”
[E]ven his defenders say Alexander’s aggressiveness has sometimes taken him to the outer edge of his legal authority.
Glenn Greenwald correctly points out that the phrase "outer edge of his legal authority" is Washington code for "clearly illegal".

But the "collect it all" philosophy is not only illegal. It is stupid and dangerous.

"Collect it all" makes the haystack bigger than it needs to be. It collects data that is certain to never be "relevant" in any criminal case. The bigger haystack makes it more difficult to find the needles. The program eats up huge resources which would likely be more effective if they would be spend elsewhere. All the money spend on it creates a lobby that will make it difficult to shift such resources.

It is also a huge danger to personal freedom. How long will it take until all that personal data will be searched during each and every job application? First for those who want to work for the NSA itself, then for all government jobs, then for the "important" industries and then for all positions. Some nerdy or angry tweet you made years ago may then exclude you from any well paying future position. How long until automatic "triggers" will be attached to the algorithms that sift through all the data? What consequences will it have if some "trigger" switches, for whatever reason, from your data? Will it immediately put you on some disposition matrix?

The NSA's "collect it all" attitude is not only illegal, a vast waste of public resources and dangerous to personal and political freedom. It is an invitation to abuse.

What general will withstand the urge to use this information if it could help him avoid a budget cut? What administration will NOT use the power this information gives to its political gains? What can be abused will be abused. And we all will be, one way or another, casualties of this.

Posted by b on July 15, 2013 at 13:00 UTC | Permalink


"Collect it all" makes the haystack bigger than it needs to be. It collects data that is certain to never be "relevant" in any criminal case. The bigger haystack makes it more difficult to find the needles.

That's very true, b. But as you suggest yourself, it's not the needle they are concerned with, but the hay. Total surveillance invariably leads to total control, which is the whole point. They don't care about the occasional needle they may stumble upon. They want to be sure the hay stays in line and never gets to uppity.

Posted by: Lysander | Jul 15 2013 13:20 utc | 1

"Thomas Drake, a former senior executive at the National Security Agency (NSA) who was charged under the espionage act after he highlighted waste, fraud and illegal activity at the intelligence agency, spoke at a National Press Club Luncheon about the national intelligence community and its attitude towards whistle-blowing." 1 hour, 2 minutes

Posted by: Juan Moment | Jul 15 2013 13:46 utc | 2

Good article b, and as #1 points out, it's about total control. And not just from a government angle. Private corporations, since they're doing the bulk of the work for the NSA, also can use this uber-collection of information to further their quest for ever increasing profits and hegemony.

Posted by: ben | Jul 15 2013 14:28 utc | 3

You beat me to it Lysander. So, of course, did b a paragraph, further down. Though, being b, he is inclined to be generous and attribute, to incompetence or unimaginativeness, actions which might equally be seen as deliberately designed by authoritarians dreaming of total domination.

We are agreed: this is the stuff of nightmares, a redefinition of society's nature. The hobbling of all originality and inventiveness. And it is precisely as ordered by that seminal, if barely comprehensible, theorist of despotisms Jeremy Bentham.

Putting McCoy's piece (and you beat me to that, too) into proper context, most of what the US was doing in the Philippines followed the practice of the British in India. And they were guided by Bentham's disciples James and John Stuart Mill.

Utilitarianism has been joined from birth with Malthusian and Ricardian imperial economics. These are the foundations of liberalism and neo-liberalism

The Panopticon lives. Under the all-seeing eye humanity is doomed to choose between slavery or revolt.

Posted by: bevin | Jul 15 2013 14:38 utc | 4

This quote from Chris Hedge's latest, is just another use for "haystack" information collection.

"The vast state surveillance system, detailed in Edward Snowden’s revelations to the British newspaper The Guardian, at the same time ensures that no action or protest can occur without the advanced knowledge of our internal security apparatus. This foreknowledge has allowed the internal security systems to proactively block activists from public spaces as well as carry out pre-emptive harassment, interrogation, intimidation, detention and arrests before protests can begin. There is a word for this type of political system—tyranny."

Posted by: ben | Jul 15 2013 14:38 utc | 5

The Hedge's article in full:

Posted by: ben | Jul 15 2013 14:49 utc | 6

"What can be abused will be abused"

"it's not the needle they are concerned with, but the hay"

"carry out pre-emptive harassment, interrogation, intimidation, detention"

"this is the stuff of nightmares"

Absolutely. Scary, scary stuff. I don't believe humanity has come face to face with it's own power for evil like this since the detonation of the first nuclear bomb.

Posted by: guest77 | Jul 15 2013 14:50 utc | 7

It's a fascinating field with some incredibly creepy implications, and something the Department of Defense is very interested in:

And of course ways to defeat them (supposedly):

Posted by: guest77 | Jul 15 2013 15:31 utc | 8

That Thomas Drake thing is quite good. But something to be more explicit about is the long-standing, regular practice of blackmail of elected officials by the NSA, as a pre-emptive strategy to avoid legislative curtaliment or scrutiny. The exposition of this comes from Russell Tice, in various Sibel Edmonds interviews, some of which I think are still for subscribers to her Boiling Frogs Post only, unfortunately, but some of which are freely accessible there:

Posted by: Rowan Berkeley | Jul 15 2013 15:47 utc | 9

So what actions are the individuals here taking to protect their privacy and shift the paradigm?

I have heard a number of other on line individuals discussing their options...

Any suggestions?
Any actions anyone is taking?

No good just pointing it out and complaining about it.
That's an exercise in futility. It accomplishes nothing.

Going back to snail mail
No online banking
Stay away from the "stupid" phone
off the "stupid" grid
Don't let the hydro company manage your house
stop putting spy cameras in your own house
chose your technology carefully
stop using loyalty cards
pay cash as much as possible
use your internet time wisely?
organize against the smart meters?
I have heard and read other things elsewhere but seen no talk of that here..
Unless I have missed it?
Just curious

Posted by: Penny | Jul 15 2013 15:57 utc | 10

Adding to # 10
Use Facebook as little if possible and perhaps not at all.

Posted by: Fernando | Jul 15 2013 16:32 utc | 11

Putin's patience wearing thin.

Posted by: jim | Jul 15 2013 16:36 utc | 12

Plus Brasilian legislators are wishing to compel Internet providers to maintain all info in the country and to also lobby for the USA to no longer have the control of the Internet. As it were to provide the UNO, control and management of it.
Brasil of course by itself has no power to force this issue. However this Nation-state (oh no, what will Anonymous say) is voicing the concerns of other nation-states regarding their online sovereignty.
This now takes the form of a hit on the USA economy, in a sense.
However can the United Nations as a near appendage of the USA be trusted to maintain the freedom and independence of online netizens?
Ay Dios mio, que lio.

Posted by: Fernando | Jul 15 2013 16:46 utc | 13

I regard all those precautions as impractical, except staying away from Facebook. I've never registered with Facebook, so not infrequently someone gives puts something on their Facebook page and I just have to live without it. For instance (and this really is a stunning irony), Snowden's airport statement of last week was first posted by Tanya Lokshina of HRW on her Facebook page.

Posted by: Rowan Berkeley | Jul 15 2013 17:33 utc | 14

Add to #10.
Make up a mailing list of every pro-snooping politician in US, UK, Germany, Oz, NZ, Canada et al in the West, and send a cc of every email to the list. If only 10 million people make a habit of this it will create a lot of traffic.
It may even be possible to get hundreds of millions of people to do it - if the folks who feel they've got nothing to hide can be persuaded to adopt a pro-active approach and PROVE it by sending a cc of every email and 'helping' the Govt to the best of their Patriotic ability.

It'd probably be prudent not cc party invitations - unless one wanted to be buried under a mountain of freeloaders.

There are lots of different and amusing list possibilities besides politicians.

Posted by: Hoarsewhisperer | Jul 15 2013 19:07 utc | 15


Tired of snoopfest

Posted by: ab initio | Jul 15 2013 19:08 utc | 16

Penny @ 10: All good ideas, but, I doubt even Jesus could accomplish all of them. Sharing information to increase awareness is what most of us are doing here, besides of course, the therapy. Supporting the people and sites who are trying to increase the public's awareness is critical. And, I mean with real money, something the people most of us rail against, have in abundance. Until the awareness level rises in the great unwashed public, the hope of change is remote. Until then, sites like this one, and yours, are very important. People do the best they can.

Posted by: ben | Jul 15 2013 21:35 utc | 17

penny 10

'Going back to snail mail'

Posted by: heath | Jul 15 2013 22:06 utc | 18

US shouldnt be arming insurgents in a y country..Imagine the furor if iran or syria were to arm insurgents in US and these plotted to attack Washington

Posted by: brian | Jul 15 2013 23:02 utc | 19

beware UK border

UK anti-terror law allows border cops to seize phone data with no justification

UK border police can seize mobile phone data from anyone entering Britain without any justification. Under an anti-terror law, authorities can examine personal information and retain it for as long as they deem necessary

this is the country that brought u the London bombing and murder of Menezes: the guy they said was a terrorist and wasnt. Police acquited of the murder.... by police

Posted by: brian | Jul 15 2013 23:11 utc | 20

Heath @ 18 snail mail of vastly more tedious to snoop through..
it's a time waster

Rowan Berkley @ whatever

impractical or you would rather not?
because they are all doable
I do some of them
It may be less convenient...but, I don't care
What's less convenient for me is less convenient for others too
If one makes excuses one cannot change the paradigm
are you one of those persons that can't manage your own hydro and has a smart phone full of tracking things..those addictive little devices
we can all choose differently
and if we choose to stay sucked into the sytem then we will be sucked into the system

Ben: raising awareness has to be followed by action
or nothing changes

oh and I am not on facebook and have asked for people to not place my picture on facebook or the picture of my husband

Jesus could do some of those things

Posted by: Penny | Jul 16 2013 17:10 utc | 21

Can Edward Snowden Be Deterred?
In other words, from the time Edward Snowden’s first leaked documents came out, it was obvious that he was in control of how much of the NSA’s secret world would be seen. It would be hard then not to conclude that capturing him, imprisoning him, trying him, and throwing away the key is likely to increase, not decrease, the flow of those documents.
Imagine for a moment that an American president’s plane had been brought down in a similar fashion. Imagine that a consortium of nations pressured by, say, China or Russia, did it and that, with the president aboard, it was then searched for a Chinese or Soviet “dissident."


Posted by: Hoarsewhisperer | Jul 16 2013 18:00 utc | 22

Penny, it seems to me that trying to avoid surveillance is the best way to attract it. My strategy (for whatever it's worth) is to assume that they know everything about me, see everything I post, read (or can at will read) all my emails, and so on. I don't have a cell phone, and I very seldom use the landline phone, so everything in my file comes from here on the web. And incidentally, I always use my real name. On my own blog, I'm extremely candid about my views, some of which are bizarre, but I don't think they're arrestable offenses (until the day we all become arrestable). Occasionally people turn up on my blog whose worldviews logically imply that armed resistance is the only option remaining, and I gently but firmly make it clear to them that talking like that on the web is as good as walking into the police station and talking like that to the desk sergeant. But my aim is simply to find out and state the truth about things, not to encourage or incite any particular sort of response. Knowing what's really going on is a prerequisite to any intelligent response, and particularly, knowing which parts of the GWOT are real and which are phony (entirely composed of provocateurs, patsies and double agents), is a prerequisite for any political choices. I'll let people draw their own conclusions about appropriate responses after that.

Posted by: Rowan Berkeley | Jul 16 2013 20:49 utc | 23

Snail mail was a great revenue and control system, email killed that. Moreover it has killed landline/fax etc, all high rate services. I could see why email or the internet if curbed would be of value, and a very high value. We are talking billions per day in lost revenue and via a largely uncontrolled medium. In fact this medium with 3D printers with the internet will kill the motor industry and others, it is total globalization, no borders in trade, a part from china in seconds, no freight, no postal service. Just think on the drop in fuel needed? I think it’s fantastic; break a light switch, find the resin and file, print, and I never left the house running around like a tit looking for the switch that would be a special order (No stock Sir) and cost more than the unit. Ok, this will take decades, but small scale it has already started, once its moving, we might see 3D print-N-Go where post offices used to be. I am buying one, and I have 1000 uses, the boom is starting. So where am I going with this? The internet is a tool, not only as a monitor, but a global shop, it has changed the way we buy, review, inquire on products, it will soon be irrelevant where the product is or from, a total open market, free trade in its purity, a word slung as 'progressive' but our Government is petrified at the thought! I feel this is an economic issue being wrapped as a 'Security risk', it’s billions in daily trade, possibly moving into the trillions, moreover 5,10,15,20% reduction in shipping, fuel, logistic & Transport systems, even 1% is a massive hit. In that, a new generation of 3D printing is hitting, 'construction' based, (Modular systems) be it a car, house, it will be feasable, now that is a game changer...

Posted by: kev | Jul 17 2013 1:35 utc | 24

This piece by Dan Hind is well worth reading:

Posted by: bevin | Jul 17 2013 1:54 utc | 25

Huh. If I didn't know any better, I'd say all of this is hurting corporate bottom lines... er, the US Constitution. Yeah. Hurting the US Constitution. That's what I meant. Because we're caring about that now.

Posted by: Monolycus | Jul 17 2013 13:35 utc | 26

@24 bevin

Good article, especially this:

And once the sliming facts, the family secrets, the personal insecurities are discreetly put out there by a government agency, they can be deployed and recycled via sympathetic journalists and blogs and repeated ad nauseam on Facebook and Twitter.

It doesn't have to be the "Government" that puts out the dirt, though they - or elements within it - certainly can generate it. Think of that James O'keefe piece of shit who destroyed a national organization of the poor (my guess is with Obama's consent) with some falsely edited video. Think of all manner of right wing blogs ready to pump out all kinds of accusations until the mainstream media can "no longer ignore the controversy" and then present the lies in an "objective" light.

This is scary power. As b said, what can be abused will be abused. It's only a matter of time.

Posted by: guest77 | Jul 17 2013 14:01 utc | 27

This is also worth reading:

Posted by: bevin | Jul 17 2013 16:09 utc | 29


No good just pointing it out and complaining about it. That's an exercise in futility. It accomplishes nothing.

I agree with Penny (not a misprint). If we run around like chicken little, terrorized by the government, then it has won. It has won!

Instead we must (1) mostly live our lives the way we want to do (2) perhaps adapt a bit to make the government's job more difficult (3) disobey government on occasion and (4) recognize that the government is extremely incompetent, especially when it comes to using huge amounts of data.

Henry David Thoreau:

--How does it become a man to behave toward this American government to-day? I answer that he cannot without disgrace be associated with it.
--It is not a man's duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of any, even to most enormous, wrong; he may still properly have other concerns to engage him; but it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it, and, if he gives it no thought longer, not to give it practically his support.
--If a plant cannot live according to nature, it dies; and so a man.
--I came into this world, not chiefly to make this a good place to live in, but to live in it, be it good or bad.

Posted by: Don Bacon | Jul 17 2013 17:05 utc | 30

Here's an ad I just ran across:

Hard drive crash? PC stolen?
No problem! Call the NSA for a backup of all your files.
Just call 1-800-Got-Your-Stuff

Posted by: Don Bacon | Jul 17 2013 21:13 utc | 31

Via the guardian from G Greenwald:

Email exchange between Edward Snowden and former GOP Senator Gordon Humphrey

Former two-term GOP Senator Gordon Humphrey of New Hampshire emailed Edward Snowden yesterday:

Mr. Snowden,

Provided you have not leaked information that would put in harms way any intelligence agent, I believe you have done the right thing in exposing what I regard as massive violation of the United States Constitution.

Having served in the United States Senate for twelve years as a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, the Armed Services Committee and the Judiciary Committee, I think I have a good grounding to reach my conclusion.

I wish you well in your efforts to secure asylum and encourage you to persevere.

Kindly acknowledge this message, so that I will know it reached you.

Gordon J. Humphrey
Former United States Senator
New Hampshire

After I contacted Sen. Humphrey to confirm its authenticity, he wrote to me:

Mr. Greenwald,

Yes. It was I who sent the email message to Edward Snowden, thanking him for exposing astonishing violations of the US Constitution and encouraging him to persevere in the search for asylum.

To my knowledge, Mr. Snowden has disclosed only the existence of a program and not details that would place any person in harm's way. I regard him as [...]


Posted by: Juan Moment | Jul 18 2013 9:34 utc | 32

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