Friday, January 23, 2009

NSA Agents Reduced to Conducting E-Discovery on Citizens?

New allegations from Russell Tice, the former NSA analyst who earlier revealed the agency's role in warrantless eavesdropping on international phone calls, suggest that the NSA has also been compiling a vast database of information about the domestic communications of US citizens.  In two interviews with MSNBC's Keith Olbermann -- who is probably not the most objective person to be hosting the discussion -- Tice described in fairly rough terms a practice of data collection and analysis that sounds very much like some forms of electronic discovery.  Wired has a good summary of the assertions here.   

In particular, Tice describes a system of information gathering that is less direct eavesdropping than it is data mining: "This is garnered from algorithms that have been put together to try to just dream-up scenarios that might be information that is associated with how a terrorist could operate," Tice said. "And once that information gets to the NSA, and they start to put it through the filters there . . . and they start looking for word-recognition, if someone just talked about the daily news and mentioned something about the Middle East they could easily be brought to the forefront of having that little flag put by their name that says 'potential terrorist'."  The process he talks about is similar to earlier speculation as to how such surveillance would operate.   

If true, Tice's claims raise obvious Fourth Amendment issues.  They also paint the rather sad picture of some of our country's best intelligence analysts toiling away at tasks that are little different than those practiced by junior associates and contract attorneys in law firms and e-discovery companies from New York to New Dehli.  It would be adding insult to injury, of course, if Tice's allegations are true and the analysis is being directed at the analysts' fellow citizens.  

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