NSA's massive database struggling under weight of spam

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?
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

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.


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."

Editorial standards