NSA's massive database struggling under weight of spam

NSA's massive database struggling under weight of spam

Summary: Apparently our NSA buddies have a bit of a spam problem. Think about it. If they're grabbing every bit of email metadata they can get their hands on, what are they really getting?

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Look, you all know I tend to side with the NSA on issues of data collection for the purpose of protecting American citizens, but sometimes it's okay to have a chuckle at the expense of friends. This one's not quite a knee slapper, but it is worthy of a giggle or two from the It Serves Them Right Dept.

spam-mail-nsa

On Monday, we were treated to another breathless report about the NSA's clandestine data collection activities, courtesy the Washington Post and everyone's favorite public enemy, Edward Snowden.

In its latest missive, the Post reported that the NSA is vacuuming up email and instant message address books that are sent around the Internet. The report claims that various entities outside the US are providing full address book and buddy list data back to the NSA, so the once super-secret spy agency can create a map of friends and associates, both Americans and "them foreigners," to paraphrase some of our esteemed legislators.

While it's possible some of the Web-based mail providers are flinging exabytes of address book data to the NSA, it's far more likely that the NSA is grabbing the cc and bcc fields of email that's unencrypted and sent over the open Internet.

It makes sense. Almost every day, I get a meeting invite sent over the open Internet with something like 12-17 attendees. If you were to track all the people on those meeting invites (and all the other massive cc lists I'm included in), you'd get a good picture of my personal social (or, in this case, business relationship) graph -- which would tell you I spend an inordinate amount of time in meetings talking to corporate and government bureaucrats.

But it's not the so-called address book part of the Post that got me chuckling. It's the spam problem.

See, apparently our NSA buddies have a bit of a spam problem. Think about it. If they're grabbing every bit of email metadata they can legally get their hands on, what are they really getting?

Mashable reports that more than 70 percent of email is spam, so it's reasonable to assume that if the NSA is gobbling up all the email metadata it legally can, it's going to get a very big case of indigestion from downing too much spam.

I'm sorry. I know the NSA is fighting the good fight, and is trying to protect Americans from harm from enemy actors, but that's still very funny. It just seems like poetic justice.

Now for the personal plea. I get thousands of email messages a day, and the spam filters in Exchange do a good job of killing off the true positives. But I get a large amount of subjective messages that aren't strictly spam, but I still don't want to see.

I'm guessing the brain trust at the NSA is working on a way to filter out the good data from the flood of spam, and my request is this: if you come up with a good anti-spam algorithm, share it. That's all I ask. I don't want to know what John Boehner eats for breakfast or why Harry Reid is still in office. I just want less spam.

So, NSA, throw us all a bone, will ya? Or, hey, if you really want to turn privacy activists' frowns upside down, intercept all that spam before it comes into the U.S. and just deep six it.

I'll even help you write the YouTube ad: Last year, Americans struggled under the load of 18 quadrillion email messages, of which only a few per-person were legitimate. We're the NSA and we block all those bad messages, so you don't have to.

And, in return for sharing your contact list with us (just like you do with every other frickin' web service on the planet, sheesh!), we'll even block messages from people you DO know, but don't want to hear from.

That's right. We're the NSA: saving you from evil, one adult enhancement message at a time. (This service not provided during the government shutdown. Please write your Congressperson and tell them Uncle Keith sent you.)

I'm telling you. It could work. Add in a lost data restore service for $49 a year, and the NSA could potentially solve our budget problems out of the profits of the service. Well, as long as they don't use the same contractors that did the Obamacare web interface. Woah, that didn't go so well, did it? Ouch.

Nota benny: Yes, most of this article is intended in jest. Don't take it all serious-like, 'kay? Sometimes, we just "gots ta laugh."

Topics: Privacy, Government, Government US, Security

About

David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

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Talkback

36 comments
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  • I'm dumbfounded

    Mr. Gewirtz is in possession of insights regarding the NSA and their purported grappling with data.

    WOW. Is there yet another leak inside the realm of NSA or is this just another utterance of drivel ?
    EnticingHavoc
    • Gewirtz is brainwashed

      " you all know I tend to side with the NSA on issues of data collection for the purpose of protecting American citizens"

      So why the NSA USA fascists listen to the Brazilian president, EU officials?
      The USA is responsible for almost all the terrorism because they attack other nations

      Wake up, brainwashed
      anywherehome
      • You both missed a very crucial bit at the bottom of the article

        "Nota benny: Yes, most of this article is intended in jest. Don't take it all serious-like, 'kay? Sometimes, we just "gots ta laugh.""

        IOW it wasn't serious.
        athynz
        • ok, but the truth must be told every time it's possible :)

          ok, but the truth must be told every time it's possible :)
          anywherehome
          • The Truth Must Be Told

            If so, anywherehome, why did you say "The USA is responsible for almost all the terrorism because they attack other nations"? That is either just your opinion or a lie. You could never back it up with facts. For example, are you such a hateful person that you blame the USA for the September 11th attacks? If so, you're no better than a Ku Klux Klansman.
            wnematollahi
  • NSA and Spam

    I like it, but such innovative thinking seems pretty rare within Government agencies, or perhaps it is rare that it actually makes it into real policy. As for the NSA itself, as I reflect on the rash of fires due to shoddy planning at their Utah facility, and the fact that it is a government agency, they really can't be that efficient at their job. I have never read about or encountered an agency that seemed to be run well. Except, of course, the military when actually running field operations. Enjoy your columns and your sense of humor.
    ebrown@...
  • Let's not go there

    As annoying as spam is, I *really* don't want the NSA to filter it for me (I'd much rather do that myself).
    John L. Ries
  • Finally, a great proposal!

    NSA Data recovery service would save the world!
    giatros
    • I'm not sure I would rely on the NSA for data recovery...

      with the widely-reported electrical problems at the new Utah NSA data center (see http://www.forbes.com/sites/kashmirhill/2013/10/07/the-nsas-hugely-expensive-utah-data-center-has-major-electrical-problems-and-basically-isnt-working/ for example), I'm not sure I would rely on the NSA to keep MY data intact! ;-) (and now I'm probably on their list!)
      randysmith@...
  • Huh, looked at Facebook deals?

    Ever looked into the shady deals Facebook is making, selling our actual data to foreign entities? Be more concerned with them and other private companies.
    Also there is a reason Google isn't in China - a little too dark for even them, but not Facebook.
    GDCM
    • I KNOW Facebook isn't selling my data

      They don't have any to sell.
      harry_dyke
  • Article: "It's the spam problem"

    Is the spam signal or noise? From the perspective of link analysis, spam would appear to be noise. At least on the surface. But, what if the miscreants were to use spam as a cover for their misdeeds?

    Would it be possible to embed a message of some sort for operatives in spam? Possibly a good way to hide in a crowd ...
    Rabid Howler Monkey
    • SPAM Disguise

      My thoughts exactly, Rabid Howler Monkey.

      So simple.
      jm1248
    • Steganography

      Messages can be embedded in images using steganographic techniques.

      http://sourceforge.net/projects/steganography/
      harry_dyke
      • In other words,

        sometimes "male enhancement" might mean something much more sinister and violent?
        jallan32
  • A reminder that yes, the NSA has to actually work at

    "spying" on people. I'm sure 99% of the data they go through, they would discard as useless, probably even more considering all the forwarded emails.
    grayknight
  • And many lulz were had that day.

    I wonder if Anonymous is catching on?
    Jacob VanWagoner
  • Spam

    & it couldn’t happen to a nicer bunch of folks, could it?
    Kootenay Coyote
  • What Do We Really Know

    Is anyone in a position to state - publicly, under oath - that ANY report of failures at the NSA's collection center(s) are not in fact mis or dis information intended to fool the American public?
    shovelDriver
  • ha ha ha

    "Look, you all know I tend to side with the NSA on issues of data collection for the purpose of protecting American citizens, ..."
    I've classified you as an American apologist, and since I oppose what you support I oppose you.

    "It Serves Them Right Dept."
    One lives in hope that America gets what's coming to it :-(

    " ... everyone's favourite public enemy, Edward Snowden."
    Please take me as a counter example to your claim of 'everyone' ... I consider him an enemy of the American regime and a friend to the world.

    "It's the spam problem."
    Indeed, America is on the brink of default and our Government advisor is worried about spam. Nero tried the same tactic.

    "It just seems like poetic justice."
    My idea of poetic justice is that when America defaults the Government use the same tactic as in Cyprus. "Hey Bill, hey Tim, hey Eric ... we got a liquidity problem over here ... gonna up your contribution ... no, not to the campaign, to the Federal Reserve. How does $100Bn sound? Is Friday good for you?"

    " ... and my request is this: if you come up with a good anti-spam algorithm, share it"
    I got one ... very efficient too - pull the plug.

    "That's right. We're the NSA: saving you from evil, ... "
    ... blowback from American Imperialism crushing opponents around the world.

    "Well, as long as they don't use the same contractors that did the Obamacare web interface. Woah, that didn't go so well, did it? Ouch."
    Maybe we could do the same with MSFT, APPL, Facebook and the like ... you know, put privacy back in - LIKE IT WAS SUPPOSED TO BE IN THE FIRST PLACE.

    "Nota benny: Yes, most of this article is intended in jest. Don't take it all serious-like, 'kay? Sometimes, we just "gots ta laugh.""
    Duly Noted: but not so easy to laugh on the receiving end :-(
    The thing is, when you tell a joke, everybody knows its a joke, but nobody laughs - then you know you completely mis-read the mood and you hold the niche opinion.
    Ha, ha, ha.
    jacksonjohn