October 15, 2013
Sorry, Yahoo! (Marissa Mayer / Yahoo)
Sorry, Yahoo! (Marissa Mayer / Yahoo)

I am not making this up.

The National Security Agency (NSA) is actively struggling, according to an internal briefing, with the problem of having too much data and needs a better approach to collecting it. Too much data! What a horrible problem. This falls into the category of Things You Should Probably Not Complain About Having Too Much Access To, along with sex, money and bacon.

“Gosh, SO MUCH DATA IT’S NOT EVEN USEFUL!” Frankly, this feels a little insensitive. This is like your stalker complaining that you have left too many hair and nail clippings around your apartment and workplace, and that he finds the sheer array of choices overwhelming. “Also I’ve run out of space to hang these pictures of you that I took while you slept! Listen, my time has value,” he adds, as you begin reaching gingerly for your pepper spray. “I mean, to take just one more example, your diary is so dense, in-depth and self-indulgent in its prose style. Think of the people who have to go through these things! The least you can do is be concise!”

If the NSA has more data than it wants, given its appetite for data, I can’t imagine the amount we’re talking about.

Fortunately, I don’t have to imagine it. The numbers are staggering. The Post reports:

During a single day last year, the NSA’s Special Source Operations branch collected 444,743 e-mail address books from Yahoo, 105,068 from Hotmail, 82,857 from Facebook, 33,697 from Gmail and 22,881 from unspecified other providers, according to an internal NSA PowerPoint presentation. Those figures, described as a typical daily intake in the document, correspond to a rate of more than 250 million a year.

Each day, the presentation said, the NSA collects contacts from an estimated 500,000 buddy lists on live-chat services as well as from the inbox displays of Web-based e-mail accounts.

Yes, the NSA is collecting our contact lists.

If most people are anything like me (which, as a writer, is an assumption that I am bound to make constantly) they have buddy lists that consist of People I Once E-mailed In College, Arranged Alphabetically, With A Subset Of Maybe Eleven Whom I Regularly Gchat, But In My Mind I Could Theoretically Gchat Any Of These Hundred People At Any Time, I Just Haven’t, But Their Statuses Are Often Interesting And So I Just Read Them Without Ever Telling Them And Have Done So For Years And Years.

In other words, this list is useless. If you are actually seeking to form a picture from my contacts, it will tell you nothing. It will tell you the e-mail address of a guy who lost his bike during my sophomore year and e-mailed the community list to see if anyone had located it, and the six or eight people who responded with puns urging him not to “grind your gears about it.”

The Post’s article agrees with this assessment, noting, “The picture can also be misleading, creating false ‘associations’ with ex-spouses or people with whom an account holder has had no contact in many years.”

But don’t let the fact that this data in the vast majority of cases is completely unhelpful stop you, NSA. You didn’t let it stop you from collecting the information of more than 400,000 Yahoo! account holders in a single day — which, come now. Four hundred thousand Yahoo accounts? I sincerely doubt that this particular haystack poses much of a threat, if only because they clearly can’t use the Internet right. As Yahoo!ers, the worst they’re going to do is lightly sabotage the late 1990s. Or, if they’re feeling really lethal, force other people to join a Yahoo!Group to get book club updates.

But wait, I hear you say, I am not a foreign national! What’s the NSA doing with me? Well, yes, the collection takes place overseas, but The Cloud, unfortunately for the privacy of your contacts, Is Everywhere, Including But Not Limited To On Foreign Servers. The Post report notes:

Because of the method employed, the agency is not legally required or technically able to restrict its intake to contact lists belonging to specified foreign intelligence targets, he said.

When information passes through “the overseas collection apparatus,” the official added, “the assumption is you’re not a U.S. person.”

In practice, data from Americans is collected in large volumes — in part because they live and work overseas, but also because data crosses international boundaries even when its American owners stay at home. Large technology companies, including Google and Facebook, maintain data centers around the world to balance loads on their servers and work around outages.

A senior U.S. intelligence official said the privacy of Americans is protected, despite mass collection, because “we have checks and balances built into our tools.”

Well, thank the Maker for that.

On the bright side, one fun fact gleaned from this Terrifyingly Giant And Undiscriminating Dragnet is confirmation that the majority of all e-mail is spam from fake addresses that doesn’t get delivered. I just wish the NSA hadn’t had to peer creepily through all the e-mail to discover this information. This is akin to your stalker announcing that he found your lost car keys hidden in the secret safe drawer under your bed to which only you thought you knew the combination. Hooray! Shudder.

And now the NSA is complaining about it? The problem is too much data, NSA? Time to ” Memorialize what you need” vs. “Order one of everything off the menu and eat what you want”? Too great a burden? Well, the least we can do is take some of it off your hands. Now, if anyone needs me, I’ll be communicating by carrier pigeon.

Yes, I know that in the scheme of things, my data is just an infinitesimal speck, and its keywords are probably not very relevant or interesting, but this is just as reassuring as the thought that “well, in the scheme of things, I am just an infinitesimal, irrelevant speck” ever is. Which is to say, not really.

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day.