March 28, 2015

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Technical debt in the NSA’s phone call data program?

According to stories last Friday in the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal, the NSA’s phone call data program seems to be less comprehensive than previously thought—the agency is apparently collecting data on only about 20-30% of calls, and mostly from landlines.

I’m quoted in the Post story saying that this “calls into question whether the rationale offered for the program is consistent with the way the program has been operating.” Advocates of the program tend to claim that it is necessary to “get the whole haystack” in order for the kind of chaining analysis done with this data to be effective. If the NSA has only about 25% of the full dataset—and if that is mostly from domestic landlines, which one would expect to be the type least used by the terrorists who are the targets of this program—one wonders how effective the program can be.

So what is going on? A few theories come to mind.
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