Back to Main List
Back to Book List

Notes and Reflections on Books and Media

by Hannah Leitheiser


The Shadow Factory: The Ultra-Secret NSA from 9/11 to the Eavesdropping on America

James Bamford




So, I've read three books on the NSA, more or less.

The Shadow Factory: a pre-Snowden technical appraisal of surveillance capacities.

No Place to Hide: The Guardian Journalist Greenwald's Story of working with Snowden to publish his leaks.

The Snowden Files: A better focus on the human side of Snowden and others involved.

The first sense I get is that although all the leaks of both Bush-era warentless wiretapping and Obama's expansions of data-collection generate public outrage, there's no evidence the government has any intention of changing, except perhaps in working harder to prevent leaks (wikipedia says they've been pruning down the security clearance holders.) In that way, Snowden's revelations enhanced the panopticon tremendously -- you may have suspected before the government had their eyes on most all your data, but now you know. Behave, citizen.

The other sense I get, as observed in The Shadow Factory, collecting data is easy; 'codebreaking' -- here simply meaning gleaning intelligence from data -- is hard. I'm not up on the latest in machine learning and artificial intelligence, but generally speaking, computers are dumb. You've got to kinda baby them -- spoon just the right data in the right format, carefully ask the kinds of question they are programmed to answer, and if you get something wrong they spit up. The real world is quite a mess to a computer.

Not saying knowledge isn't power, but when the Snowden leaks broke, I'm sure NSA would have loved to point to cases where they used their supercomputer to predict the next school shooting, tipped off the police minutes before, and watched mothers on the news praising, "God bless you, NSA! You might have saved my little Kenny from the unthinkable." And obviously they missed 9/11 even though some of the terrorists were living in the same neighborhood as the NSA headquarters, communicating back to Bin Laden's base of operation. True, James Bamford in Shadow Factory makes that seem like the NSA director was consciously holding back to keep from looking like Big Brother. How much that's the truth and how much it's convenient, I'm not sure. But at any rate, I think it's important not to overestimate the power of data. Of course, with future advances in natural language processing, automatic translation, and machine learning, who knows how that power might change?