Barton Gellman has yet another release from the Snowden files today, this time an internal report on violations of surveillance rules by NSA analysts. It’s hard to come to any firm conclusions about NSA compliance just from the report, which provides little more than raw numbers and a few basic breakdowns of violation type. In the first quarter of 2012 there were a total of 865 “incidents,” two-thirds of which involved foreign cell phones that were under surveillance and weren’t removed when they entered the U.S. According to the report, “Roamer incidents are largely unpreventable, even with good target awareness and traffic review, since target travel activities are often unannounced and not easily predicted.”
So how bad is this? Good question. Here’s what the NSA had to say:
“We’re a human-run agency operating in a complex environment with a number of different regulatory regimes, so at times we find ourselves on the wrong side of the line,” a senior NSA official said in an interview, speaking with White House permission on the condition of anonymity. “You can look at it as a percentage of our total activity that occurs each day,” he said. “You look at a number in absolute terms that looks big, and when you look at it in relative terms, it looks a little different.”
I wonder what that percentage is? If it’s, say, around 0.1 percent of total activity, that would mean NSA doesn’t make very many mistakes. That’s good. But it would also mean that NSA initiates upwards of a million database queries per quarter. That’s a helluva lot.
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