Study on how irrelevant the NSA's mass surveillance really is for counterterrorism

I almost forgot to link to a study from a think tank in the U.S.:

"Do NSA's Bulk Surveillance Programs Stop Terrorists?"
Peter Bergen, David Sterman, Emily Schneider, and Bailey Cahall
New America Foundation, January 2014


This shouldn't be surprising. It happens quite  a lot that superficial approaches are being preferred over boring, hard work. A typical reaction to crime hot spots is to patrol a lot -and visibly- with uniformed police in the area.
Meanwhile, what really helps is simply more resources for criminal investigations and prosecution in the judiciary system instead of a superficial show of strength.

What's different with the intelligence services is that intelligence services have only the spectacular, superficial and ultimately quite useless methods on offer. Police leadership has both the superficial and the actually effective approaches on offer and tends to advocate the effective ones, but intelligence services have nothing really effective on offer, and end up promoting their ineffective approach out of bureaucratic self-interest. 
People who don't research diligently fall for the claims of the supposed counterterrorism experts and agree to funding their work - and then get largely blocked from observing if their money is well-spent by secrecy efforts (and depend on whistleblowers to learn on what methods their money is spent on at all).



  1. This feels like the same story as the enhanced interrogation techniques that gained infamy in the years after 9/11. Some assholes convinced bureaucrats that this was the best way, and then got the full backing of the government with no evidence of any success. The eventual information these methods produced was later challenged by others who claimed it was the result of traditional interrogation and intelligence gathering techniques. The CIA deleted or classified any files that could have proven they were doing something right when the inquiries started, which makes it pretty clear that they weren't.

    This feels like the exact same thing. "We promise this is important, but we can't prove it because it's classified." That's bad enough in a totalitarian government, it's something even worse in a society where the citizens supposedly have a say in government. It's even worse when the NSA has a track record of lying about everything anyway.

  2. I don't know if I am giving the people running these torture and spying programs to much credit, but perhaps the terror excuse is just an excuse for something more important and effective, at least for certain people.

    The torture likely is not primarily directed for intelligence gathering purposes, but for what it has almost always been. Revenge and Intimidation.

    And the mass spying operation likely isn't terrorism defense related, but more focused on intellectual property theft and the blackmail of key people in business and politics.
    Although I do think most of the people working on these systems honestly believe it would improve police and defense work.

    Looking at the setup of these systems, much of this intimidation seems to be directed not only on foreign threats, but mainly towards the domestic populations of the governments running these operations.

    Most people prefer digital capabilities above privacy.
    Compared to how people value their own privacy and rights,
    how little do you think would they care for the privacy and rights of others?
    Especially if they start believing their own propaganda.

    I don't know if this is done by design, or just a side-effect of bureaucracy creep. In the end the effect remains.