back to article After blowing $100m to snoop on Americans' phone call logs for four years, what did the NSA get? Just one lead

The controversial surveillance program that gave the NSA access to the phone call records of millions of Americans has cost US taxpayers $100m – and resulted in just one useful lead over four years. That’s the upshot of a report [PDF] from the US government's freshly revived Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB …

  1. Vimes

    Well the people at the NSA probably also got yet another chance & way of spying on their husbands & wives so there is that too. Still a tad expensive though.

    https://www.wired.com/2013/09/nsa-stalking/

    1. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

      Indeed. The article says "whether it proved useful or led to a prosecution", but I think "led to a persecution is at least as likely".

    2. JCitizen Bronze badge
      FAIL

      I knew this scheme and more than half of the other things in the original terrorist laws were a waste of time. There is one simple fact they keep trying to skirt - THEY KNEW THE 911 ATTACK WAS COMING but wouldn't listen to their field people about the warning signs; and the three letter agencies weren't allowed to communicate with each other to compare threats and data - So DUH! The single most valuable act that resulted from the early laws, was the combining of intelligence from ALL the agencies, and the easy sharing between such agencies.

      HOWEVER! We also forget there was a reason that separation of law enforcement and intelligence agencies was done in the first place - because it was ABUSED during the civil rights and anti-war movement days. I'm willing to risk the abuse, but they must cut back to simple data sharing, and that is all - no other special powers need be given these people, because using common sense and age old investigative techniques are more efficient and effective in the first place. Keeping the public aware to report if they see something and make sure and say something will be even more effective - and THAT is where the data gathering and maybe even Advanced Intelligence needs to be focused. Let the AI bots look at read all the public available knowledge out there and I guarantee they will catch more plots for crazy people to commit than ever before.

      In fact, we have foiled more school shootings in our state, by simply using the "see something say something" adage than anything else.

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    But, but, but, AT&T got $100m for nothing, capitalism and cronyism at its best!

    got to keep privatising the profits and socialising the losses!

    1. redpawn Silver badge

      Not for nothing, they invest heavily in politicians. Investment involves risk.

    2. phuzz Silver badge
      Trollface

      Exactly, elReg say "spent $100M" like it's a bad thing, but won't somebody think of the poor contractors who got rich off all of this? Not to mention all the politicians who got kickbacks for continually re-authorising the program.

      It's not a government by the people, for the corporations for nothing you know!

  3. Erewhon

    The military industrial complex works just fine

    Channeling millions of your tax dollars into the hands if the rich few

  4. HildyJ Silver badge
    Alert

    Change? No way.

    The Senate and House bills appear to be going nowhere despite even President Trump tweeting that he favors reform. Note that only part of Section 215 is expiring in March.

    Current speculation over here is that the expiring part of Section 215 will be extended as is because otherwise Senate and House members will be accused of being soft on terrorism.

    “How much pain they have cost us, the evils which have never happened.” (Thomas Jefferson)

    1. Flocke Kroes Silver badge

      Re: Change? No way.

      Republican politicians find Trump useful. They do not take him seriously.

      1. phuzz Silver badge

        Re: Change? No way.

        That's not much consolation really is it? If anything it makes it worse.

      2. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

        Re: Change? No way.

        "Useful"? He's made Mitch McConnell the most powerful man in the US. It's probably the most significant (and destructive) accomplishment in Trump's entire life.

  5. onebignerd

    Scam, Scam, Scam!!!

  6. a_yank_lurker Silver badge

    Typical

    This seems to be a typical bureaucratic waste of money and resources. It seems like the NSA thought wading through a pile of data when they do not know where to look would be successful. Are there terrorists in the US, certainly but the major groups are well known. And generally most of the key membership is known. Being monitored, they could cause problems but it is likely a halfway competent plod will figure out they are up to something before they strike. Also, sifting through reams of data will not normally find the lone wolves who by definition are hard to find until they act.

    1. Jellied Eel Silver badge

      Re: Typical

      Being monitored, they could cause problems but it is likely a halfway competent plod will figure out they are up to something before they strike. Also, sifting through reams of data will not normally find the lone wolves who by definition are hard to find until they act.

      Yup, and we've had decades of movies & TV technothrillers showing how intrepid agents use tech to catch bad guys. So bad actors can become more forensically aware, even if the shows exagerate for dramatic effect. Plus the most serious & organised would know about operating as a cell, and keeping communications to a minimum. Snowden gets blamed for revealing methods, but a criminal doesn't have to be that smart to know their phone is tracking them.

      It would be interesting to do some cost/benefit/privacy analysis to demonstrate benefit vs the cost & privacy implications. That currently doesn't look great given the number of detections, but could do some reanalysis using past cases to determine if the NSA could have added any value to solving those crimes. And I suspect the answer would be 'No', at least compared to traditional methods of LEO's finding a person of interest and requesting their CDRs. And that's probably less valuable given criminals can use P2P (Perp2Perp?) encrypted messaging or voice. The main benefit of the NSA's horde is probably only historical, ie retaining CDRs for longer than 6 or 12 months than telcos do. But that also assumes the NSA lets other agencies request data.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Typical

        A New York Times article reports that AT&T continues to store (and supply Drug Enforcement Administration agents) with phone data from as far back as 1987.

        https://threatpost.com/att-t-mobile-sprint-verizon-blasted-data-privacy/147242/

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Typical

        > Plus the most serious & organised would know about operating as a cell, and keeping communications to a minimum

        Knowing about it and having the discipline to implement it effectively are two completely different things.

      3. a_yank_lurker Silver badge

        Re: Typical

        Most of the best techniques for fighting organized gangs and cells were developed in the pre-smartphone era (like over 100 years ago). It has long been recognized the communication has to occur and that anything other than face-to-face in a secure room risks interception, letters can be opened, telegrams purloined, POTS tapped, etc. So minimizing the paper/electronic trail has been a major consideration for a long time. Now, in some respects, all the electronic toys have a tendency to leave electronic/video trails that are hard to erase which makes a competent plod's job a lot easier. And one problem for any miscreant is there are plenty of video cameras around which they do not control or own. Plus, any phone being carried will likely have a GPS on which will nicely track their location, remember phones are too convenient to left at home even when you should.

  7. Don Jefe

    Thielicious

    Peter’s Palantir is eating $1B/annual these days. You can’t expect that sort of private sector performance if you start killing the programs that feed it.

    Our government has completely abandoned the idea of growth through excellence and is nothing but the pivot man in the biggest circle jerk in history.

    It’s embarrassing.

  8. Version 1.0 Silver badge

    No surprise

    When you know that you are being tracked and monitored then you communicate in other ways.

    1. Don Jefe

      Re: No surprise

      Or there was nothing to listen to in the first place.

      1. Version 1.0 Silver badge

        Re: No surprise

        If you are monitoring everything, then when someone asks how it's going and you know that they will publicly announce the results, what do you say?

        "Sorry, it's not working well, we hardly ever see anything"

        MRDA, well they would say that, wouldn't they?

        1. Don Jefe

          Re: No surprise

          Or they would say that because it what people expect them to say. At the end of the day you can’t trust anything any of them say. It’s best just to take their money away and give someone else the chance to waste it.

  9. Julz Silver badge
    Black Helicopters

    Stinks

    of a morsel of meat been thrown to the dogs to distract attention. Any really useful information would never have been allowed to escape the confines of the NSA and their brethren. Especially if you consider that these sorts of operations primary targets include those whom are instigating the investigation. Oh dear, only a $100 million spent, sorry about that, but don't worry, it wasn't very useful anyway. Nothing to see here. Move along now.

  10. Tomato42
    Facepalm

    Drug addiction...

    Literal drug addicts are more reasonable than this lot

    1. TXITMAN

      Re: Drug addiction...

      This tech is used widely by the drug enforcement working with local cops. They use it all-the-time to track down drug dealers. When it comes time to go to court there is never a mention. So yeah, no prosecutions.

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Not that I'm in favour of this or anything, but...

    And I've not read the report to know, but this reporting of the report highlights the number of new positive leads, and tangentially mentions the intercept reports that reinforced existing intelligence. But what of the other way round of working? Where there was existing low-grade intelligence and this system provided information which could grade those reports and thus allow focus on higher threats, or provided cost savings by excluding "false positives"?

    Only saying because I like to turn things on their head to look at them.

    Mind you, if there was any significant benefit looking at it that way, I'm sure the report would have highlighted it! Anything to get that funding renewed / prove ti wasn't a waste of money.

    1. Jason Bloomberg Silver badge
      Childcatcher

      Re: Not that I'm in favour of this or anything, but...

      Anything to get that funding renewed / prove ti wasn't a waste of money.

      If even only one terrorist paedophile has been prosecuted for littering it has been worth it.

      </sarcasm>

      1. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

        Re: Not that I'm in favour of this or anything, but...

        I don't want to get off on the wrong foot here by sticking my toe in, but in the US we don't have paedophiles, we have pedophiles.

        1. TRT Silver badge

          Re: Not that I'm in favour of this or anything, but...

          Pedophile? A foot lover? Yep. Stick your toe in.

          1. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

            Re: Not that I'm in favour of this or anything, but...

            Whoosh of the week?

        2. MachDiamond Silver badge

          Re: Not that I'm in favour of this or anything, but...

          "I don't want to get off on the wrong foot here by sticking my toe in, but in the US we don't have paedophiles, we have pedophiles."

          The UK has a different form of government and it's led to a surplus of vowels they have to get rid of some how. You see it all over the place. Especially with those lonely "e's". The pair them up with a surplus "a" and all is again in balance.

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Unhappy

    "Section 215 more useless than we suspected yet they still want to keep it"

    El Reg, you have so much to learn about the Washington DC/bureaucratic mindset. Rule one--once gained, power or jurisdiction is never relinquished. Rule two--when considering cancelling, deauthorizing or cutting the budget for programs, refer to rule one.....

  13. MachDiamond Silver badge

    More grandstanging

    If the US Congress was all that concerned that the spy agencies are out of control, they could very easily reduce their budgets. They pass the budget, not the President. Why isn't this happening? Hmmmmmm, I expect that those agencies are very very useful on occasion. Say around election times when digging up dirt on an opponent is more important than morals.

  14. Mike 137 Silver badge

    the $100M haystack containing one needle

    It's an ancient and fundamental principle of good intelligence that you shouldn't bury valuable information in dross. Targeting and refinement work a lot better than arbitrary trawling. Indeed this report demonstrates that as all the positives were already on the radar.

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