90.9 WBUR - Boston's NPR news station
Top Stories:
Here and Now with Robin Young
Public radio's live
midday news program
With sponsorship from
Mathworks - Accelerating the pace of engineering and science
Accelerating the pace
of engineering and science
Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Data Mining: What Does The NSA Collect About Americans?


This past weekend at Defcon, the nation’s largest convention of computer hackers, National Security Agency Chief Gen. Keith Alexander insisted that his agency doesn’t keep files on ordinary Americans.

In response, former NSA official William Binney responded that in fact the agency does collect data, and it’s even indexed, and that’s why he left the agency.

So what’s true, and what’s most beneficial? After the Colorado shooting people asked why law enforcement wasn’t mining data on shooter James Holmes, who bought huge amounts of ammunition online and tried to join a gun club. And last week on Here & Now, we heard national security expert James Bamford say if Holmes had a Muslim name, he would have been data mined.

So, where are we on data mining, nearly ten years after the Pentagon’s controversial Total Information Awareness data mining program was killed by Congress out of concern it violated civil liberties?

James Bamford says that in the past decade the National Security Agency has transformed itself into the “largest, most covert, and potentially most intrusive intelligence agency ever created,” and it has “turned its surveillance apparatus on the U.S. and its citizens” for the first time since Watergate.

And one of its weapons is a heavily-fortified data mining facility in Utah, expected to be five times the size of the U.S. Capitol, where Americans’ e-mails, cellphone calls, Google searches, parking receipts and travel itineraries (what Bamford calls “digital pocket litter”) will be stored.


  • James Bamford, author who’s written about the Utah Data Center for Wired magazine

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • Guest

    Whoa, whoa, whoa…! Talk about Big Brother! Maybe it’s time to unplug those computers and learn to write in code?

    • Scott B., Jamestown NY

       Great, now I have to learn Apache and use snail mail just to RSVP the graduation party invites.

  • Scott B., Jamestown NY

    That the NSA, and our government in general, would seek this is scary and unconstitutional.  This is tantamount to saying that literally every citizen in the US is untrustworthy; basically a criminal that just hasn’t been caught.  The NSA’s already been allowed to cast a wide net and they missed everything.  But, instead of fixing the problem, they are allowed to cast an infinitely wide net in the blind hope that they catch someone.   That’s never worked.     The most dangerous threats aren’t going to be found by the NSA catching some idiot that’s the email or phone version of the shoe-bomber who can’t get his lighter to work.  What is going to happen is citizen after citizen is going to get red-flagged for saying, “That party was  the BOMB” and “I could just kill that idiot I work with!” 

    • Mark25251999

      I don’t belive that it is  unconstitutional,HOWEVER what You just wrote is frigging so FUNNY and well,written and yes they didn’t prevent 9/11 so that is just so mysterious why with all this technology didn’t we prevent 9/11 ?? Even though I disagree with you,You write well !!

      • Scott B

         Thanks, Mark.  It’s actually based on something that happened to a friend’s relative. The relative made a pipe bomb back in his early teens and blew up his dad’s shed. Stupid and illegal, yes, but not  a terrorist act and not designed to hurt anyone.  But he found that whenever he mentioned something like he was so mad he could kill someone, suddenly law enforcement would be at his house, his job, etc.  He has to start saying things like , “I’m so pissed off that I could MAKE COOKIES!”  We knew what he was  talking about, but that didn’t get anyone attention. Could you see that news story about him bring brought in for wanting to make someone baked good?

        I disagree, and think that it is unconstitutional.  It’s warrantless, which the Constitution expressly forbids. It too wide a lasso and the proof shows that targeted searches get much better results.

         The FBI, CIA, and NSA all knew about the 9/11 terrorists and their activities. They had them bugged and on tape. The problem was that the FBI and CIA were legally prohibited from letting one know what the other was specifically doing, and the NSA had its own agenda and didn’t want to clue either agency in on their program, wanting to go for the bigger picture. 

        The NSA hasn’t been right about anything, and missed everything: The USS Cole, the first attack on the towers, 9/11 to name just a few, yet the government keeps multiplying it’s investment in it. 

        There was a whistle-blower that was prosecuted because he found that a small covert program (small in size and cost) was incredibly effective but was axed by the NSA, and he pointed it out.  So instead of being a hero, the US legal hammer comes down on him for being just shy of a traitor in their mind.  But now there’s a multi-billion dollar center being built in Utah to monitor everyone, for the NSA that has a record of zero, and a history of not sharing vital information and having it’s own agenda that’s antithetical to what the agency was intended to do.

  • Scott B., Jamestown NY

    It’s funny, but as soon as I got done posting my first comment, I went to check my yahoo mail and it was throwing fits about letting me read it, and when I did get in Yahoo wants my permission to parse through it to find connections with what I type and who I mail, allegedly to make my email experience more pleasurable all the while “respecting my privacy”.   If I was paranoid I’d say that there seemed to be more than coincidence going on here. I’m not paranoid, but how does Yahoo say they want to pull a Facebook and scour my mail for everything I type, so they can make connections that I don’t want made “on my behalf”, yet say they are about respecting my privacy? Those are diametrically opposed ideas to my mind mind.    More interesting is that when I was about to post this my access to this site dropped. I have a couple browsers running, with a few sites tabbed on each (some site work only with IE, go figure) and had no problem with any other sites loading and working.

    Here’s the Yahoo pop-upI got:
    Welcome to Yahoo! Mail Yahoo!
    Mail is now even faster, safer, and easier to use. Yahoo! now
    automatically identifies items such as words, links, people, and
    subjects from your email to learn what matters to you so that we can
    deliver exciting new product features and relevant ads.
    Before you can access Yahoo! Mail, we need your consent to our new Terms of Service and the Yahoo! Mail Privacy Policy. Learn more about how we protect your privacy.

    Yahoo says that I have to either agree to it, or I don’t get access to my mail. Not that I can continue without the new “better” bells and whistles, but have to accept it all or not have access. 

    Welcome to the fishbowl, folks!

  • Will Schroeder

    Can you not get it throught your head??   The NSA are now allowed to spy on US citizens!!!!

  • Arydberg

    What has happened and is happening is  all too reminiscent of the taking over of Germany by the nazi party.    The patriot act for one.   The huge power granted to Homeland security.    The many millions of dollars that are being spent.    Most of all is the absolute refusal  by the media to ask the important questions that linger from 9/11.    

    Maybe we will deserve what we get.

  • No

    Why don’t you all read the NSA core values before you spew crap.

    • Yes

      I have been to their website. I saw some downright lies there. Example: “We purge incidental data.”
      False. They store everything they collect. Zetabites of data.

Robin and Jeremy

Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

September 1 4 Comments

Breastfeeding Gets A Boost From Philadelphia Hospitals

The city's major birthing hospitals have stopped sending new moms home with baby formula, to encourage breastfeeding.

August 29 Comment

World Championship Tug-Of-War Is ‘A Thing Of Beauty’

This weekend's competition in Wisconsin is a bit more intense than it was in your grade school gym class.

August 29 Comment

Repelling Mosquitoes With A Natural Sticky Patch

The Kite Patch releases odors that block the bug's carbon dioxide receptors, sending them in another direction.

August 28 3 Comments

Catching Up With The Polyphonic Spree

The choral rock band out of Dallas, Texas, has been thrilling audiences with its live performances for over a decade.