NSA May be Choking on a Huge Mouthful of Spam

Hopefully, the NSA has an über good spam filter.

The profile of the super-secret spy agency has been anything but secret of late, thanks to the activities of former CIA employee and NSA contractor turned privacy activist Edward Snowden. Like Julian Assange and Chelsea Elizabeth (formerly Bradley) Manning before him, Snowden’s put a bulls eye on his forehead by using a sharp stick to poke the U.S. intelligence community and bring to the light of day secrets that weren’t meant for public consumption. And in the matter of the NSA, the fallout’s still pouring down on the practices of the agency, which has been collecting data wherever it can, and that means Internet and phone communication to the tune of over a billion people worldwide.

And that includes email.

So it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that, perhaps, the NSA’s been inundated with spam. An interesting article on ZDNet by David Gewirtz discusses just that, and if you stop to think about it, you might just have a V-8 moment and slap your head when you realize that the very real social disease known as spam isn’t just for public consumption.

Gewirtz cites an article from The Washington Post, which details some of the information that the NSA’s gathering, and the numbers are somewhat staggering. “Rather than targeting individual users, the NSA is gathering contact lists in large numbers that amount to a sizable fraction of the world’s e-mail and instant messaging accounts. Analysis of that data enables the agency to search for hidden connections and to map relationships within a much smaller universe of foreign intelligence targets.” And that makes sense, because when you consider group discussions with lots of CCs and BCCs, you can draw all sorts of associations between people and determine their social networks.

Over a single day last year, TWP reports, “the NSA’s Special Source Operations branch collected 444,743 e-mail address books from Yahoo, 105,068 from Hotmail, 82,857 from Facebook, 33,697 from Gmail and 22,881 from unspecified other providers, according to an internal NSA PowerPoint presentation. Those figures, described as a typical daily intake in the document, correspond to a rate of more than 250 million a year.” Wow. That’s the type of information that would make spammers salivate with the potential opportunities.

TWP reports that each day, “the NSA collects contacts from an estimated 500,000 buddy lists on live-chat services as well as from the inbox displays of Web-based e-mail accounts. The collection depends on secret arrangements with foreign telecommunications companies or allied intelligence services in control of facilities that direct traffic along the Internet’s main data routes.”

So with all that information, it shouldn’t be surprising that some of it is unusable. And as Gewirtz points out, spam is a big issue, with more than 70 percent of email constituting spam. “It’s reasonable,” Gewirtz writes, “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.” And TWP concurs. “Spam has proven to be a significant problem for the NSA — clogging databases with information that holds no foreign intelligence value. The majority of all e-mails, one NSA document says, ‘are SPAM from ‘fake’ addresses and never ‘delivered’ to targets.””

Ouch. When you think of all the information they’re collecting, it’s staggering to consider that 70% of it constitutes pleas from Nigerian princes and altruists offering better, longer-lasting erections. That must be one honking big inbox. TWP writes that in one case, “the Yahoo account of an Iranian target was “hacked by an unknown actor,” who used it to send spam. The Iranian had “a number of Yahoo groups in his/her contact list, some with many hundreds or thousands of members.” The cascading effects of repeated spam messages, compounded by the automatic addition of the Iranian’s contacts to other people’s address books, led to a massive spike in the volume of traffic collected by the Australian intelligence service on the NSA’s behalf.”

David Gewirtz is unapologetic about his moral support for the NSA’s data collection activities, but he also sees the humor in the situation. “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.”

We hear ya, David.