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NSA Stalwart to Tell Parliament: 'Bulk Collection Costs Lives'

A former NSA technical director will today tell the committee reviewing the Investigatory Powers Bill that mass surveillance as proposed in the legislation failed to catch the 9/11 terrorists and will end up costing lives in Britain.

William Binney claims to have “conducted and led” Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) operations and research for NSA for 36 years, and helped found the SIGINT Automation Research Center in 1990 as the agency began its long running bulk collection campaign.

Before the Joint Committee on the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill in parliament today he’s expected to claim that while focused collection of communications works, bulk collection, as per GCHQ’s leaked BLACK HOLE system, is “99% useless.”

According to a note sent to Infosecurity by human rights group Liberty, Binney will claim that mass surveillance “costs lives, and has cost lives in Britain because it inundates analysts with too much data.”

“Who wants to know everyone who has ever looked at Google or the BBC? We have known for decades that that swamps analysts.”

By way of example, Binney claims that communications from the 9/11 terrorists were swept up in this type of surveillance dragnet but not spotted in time because of information overload, and that the same could happen in the UK.

“The net effect of the current approach is that people die first, even if historic records sometimes can provide additional information about the killers (who may be deceased by that time),” he argued in a letter to the Joint Committee from last month.

“The alternative approach based on experience is to use social networks as defined by metadata relationships and some additional rules to smartly select data from the tens of terabytes flowing by.  This focused data collected around known targets plus potential developmental targets and represented a much smaller set of content for analysts to look through.”

The latter approach also makes it possible to screen out certain protected groups—for example in the United States, US citizens’ communications are said to be excluded from such surveillance today as per the Constitution.

Binney is also set to argue that the UK government has misled parliament in claiming that MPs and other sensitive groups would be protected under the bill because there is so much data flowing along the pipe it “isn’t intelligible at the point of inception.”

“These statements are false,” he will say. “They were made by someone who does not understand the technology.”

Binney resigned from the NSA in 2001, concerned about the direction the agency was taking towards mass surveillance following 9/11.

He was cleared of any wrongdoing in an investigation which followed a New York Times story in 2005 exposing bulk collection of US citizens’ data.

However, months later his home was raided by the FBI and his security clearance taken away by the NSA—apparently forcing him to close his consultancy business at a huge financial loss.

Photo © Sanit Fuangnakhon

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