NSA incapable of accomplishing its own mass surveillance goals

As I have long argued, Americans have less reason to be afraid of the NSA intercepting their communications than afraid that vast resources are being wasted on an effort that turns out to be fruitless.

Along with an over-extension of powers comes an over-extension of competence. Finding a needle in a haystack is very difficult. But finding a needle while examining less than a third of the haystack is just a waste of time.

The Washington Post reports: The National Security Agency is collecting less than 30 percent of all Americans’ call records because of an inability to keep pace with the explosion in cellphone use, according to current and former U.S. officials.

The disclosure contradicts popular perceptions that the government is sweeping up virtually all domestic phone data. It is also likely to raise questions about the efficacy of a program that is premised on its breadth and depth, on collecting as close to a complete universe of data as possible in order to make sure that clues aren’t missed in counter­terrorism investigations.

In 2006, a senior U.S. official said, the NSA was collecting “closer to 100” percent of Americans’ phone records from a number of U.S. companies under a then-classified program, but as of last summer that share had plummeted to less than 30 percent.

The government is taking steps to restore the collection — which does not include the content of conversations — closer to previous levels. The NSA is preparing to seek court orders to compel wireless companies that currently do not hand over records to the government to do so, said the current and former officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

That effort comes in the wake of President Obama’s decision last month to find a way to move the data out of the government’s hands to assuage concerns about intrusions on privacy. Obama has given the Justice Department and the intelligence community until March 28 to come up with a plan.

The actual percentage of records gathered is somewhere between 20 and 30 percent and reflects Americans’ increasing turn away from the use of land lines to cellphones. Officials also have faced technical challenges in preparing the NSA database to handle large amounts of new records without taking in data such as cell tower locations that are not authorized for collection. [Continue reading…]

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