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NSA Collects Massive Amounts Of Data, Then What?


This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

The revelations in the past week about the National Security Agency's gathering of phone records and Internet activity have shed some light on the operations of a very secretive organization. For one thing, they illustrate that the NSA collects massive amounts of data relating to millions of people every single day. That had us wondering about how the agency handles all of that data.

To find out, we're joined in our Washington studio right now by James Bamford. He's written extensively about the NSA over the last 30 years, beginning with his book "The Puzzle Palace: A Report on America's Most Secret Agency."

Good morning.

JAMES BAMFORD: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Put in perspective for us, just briefly, how much data the NSA is gathering.

BAMFORD: Well, it's - I don't think I could actually put it in a number. It's just a tremendous amount. They're building a facility in Utah to store most of it, if not all of it, and it's going to be a million square feet. And this is at a time when you could put a terabyte of data on something smaller than a pencil.

So you're talking about a tremendous amount of information. If it was translated into pages, it'd be somewhere in excess of 500 septillion pages of documents, something like that.

MONTAGNE: Well, I think some people might imagine there really isn't someone or people actually reading all of these emails and phone records in real time. So how does the NSA process all this information?

BAMFORD: It does as much as possible by computers. To give you an example, to sift through all the - a lot of the incoming communications, cables from undersea, foreign cables and U.S. cables coming from undersea, they're - they go through a process where there's a prism put on the front of a fiber optic cable, which are - it's a light signal. And the prism splits the signal into two. One signal - one channel goes on to where it's supposed to go, normal emails and so forth.

The other one will go secretly into an NSA secret room. And in that room is computers that are loaded with software and targeting information. So as all this information, all the emails and so forth are passing through, this software is looking at the speed of light at the content and the addressee of the email, looking for target information - in other words, a particular name or a particular location or a particular a email address. And that information is filtered out to NSA.

MONTAGNE: It sounds a little bit like a random thing, and a fishing expedition. But, in fact, the administration released a rather compelling example of how massive information, a big haystack, how they could find the needle looking backwards, which is - this example is Najibullah Zazi, who was a would-be subway bomber. And he was picked up, arrested in New York before he could mount his attack because of, initially, an email he sent.

BAMFORD: Well, that's the idea. They want to be able to store a lot of this information for a long period of time. One other example is you hear intelligence people talk about if they'd had the records - telephone records and so forth - going back several years between Boston and Chechnya, or whatever, they'd be able to look up who the Boston bombers might have been talking to in Dagestan and Chechnya and so forth...

MONTAGNE: Might that have worked, in your opinion?

BAMFORD: It could've worked, but the amount of time, money, effort and privacy laws that would go into something like that - in other words, this whole idea of keeping track of everybody's telephone record is a massive violation of privacy. We could have lots of better security in the country if we had somebody doing unannounced raids on peoples' houses every single day.

You've just got to have a balance, here. And I think the secret keeping of everybody's telephone records every single day - billions of phone calls - is excessive when you're talking about one or two crimes. I think we've had less than 23 terrorist incidents since 9/11.

MONTAGNE: James Bamford is a contributor to Wired magazine, whose several books on the NSA include the "The Shadow Factory." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.