To understand the absurdity of the NSA surveillance system, just look at this slide from the today's Guardian report about the agency's supposed comprehensive internet surveillance apparatus:
NSA via Edward Snowden
Do you see it? The naiveté?
It's that single sentence there in the middle, containing the phrase "typical user" and "HTTP."
First, typical user: Who's to assume terrorists are typical users of communications?
Even the three stooges of the terrorism world — the Tsarnaevs, the underwear bomber, and the Times Square bomber — managed to evade this vast surveillance operation.
Meanwhile, military members having sultry phone conversations with stateside spouses end up as the butt end of NSA "smoke deck" conversations.
Furthermore, even though the date of these "new" leaked NSA documents was 2008 — predating the mass rollout of HTTP-S, or secure encrypted internet protocols — the idea that terrorists, even mere soldiers, are chatting away their plans on unsecure lines is naive at best, at worst it's horribly stupid.
The type of stupid that subverts the fourth amendment for 300 million "typical" Americans, while touting the success of 300 nameless captured "terrorists."
Unfortunately for the NSA, real intelligence for real bad guys still takes real work.
Real terrorists use their feet — like Bin Laden used his couriers — they use stuff like letters ... do U.S. intelligence services ever worry themselves over letters sent through the U.S. Postal Service? Probably not.
Meanwhile Bin Laden was located through convoluted and skillful use of human intelligence, as was "9/11 Mastermind" Khalid Sheik Muhammed.
The bottom line is that this gigantic intelligence apparatus is unlikely to capture anyone but the dummies of the terrorist world, or those potential recruits who don't know yet the proper channels through which to communicate.
Leonid Bershidsky of Bloomberg writes:
The infrastructure set up by the National Security Agency, however, may only be good for gathering information on the stupidest, lowest-ranking of terrorists. The Prism surveillance program focuses on access to the servers of America’s largest Internet companies, which support such popular services as Skype, Gmail and iCloud. These are not the services that truly dangerous elements typically use.
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