How Many Database Queries Do NSA Analysts Perform Each Day?


Last night, based on a statement from the NSA’s director of compliance, I wrote that NSA analysts performed about 600,000 database queries per day. This prompted several suggestions on Twitter that perhaps I was unfamiliar with SQL and had no idea how databases work. For example, this one:

@ggreenwald @kdrum select * from news.articles where technical_literacy < 0 limit 600000

Snark aside, this tweet is pointing out that a single query can return many records from a database, so perhaps the NSA’s estimate referred to the total number of records they retrieved, not the actual number of queries they made. Maybe! But according to the New York Times, the NSA guy said “the agency performs about 20 million such queries each month.” Is it possible that he misspoke? Or that the reporter misinterpreted him? Sure. But it doesn’t sound like it. There’s nothing there about the number of records retrieved. He said the agency “performs” 20 million queries per month.

As I mentioned last night, it’s possible that many of these are automated queries for one purpose or another. Actual human beings might perform only a fraction of them. Until there’s some clarification from NSA, though, there’s no particular reason to think that. For now, anyway, it sounds like he’s talking about actual queries from NSA analysts.

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