Why NSA Privacy Breaches Are No Big Deal
Policy + Politics

Why NSA Privacy Breaches Are No Big Deal

The National Security Agency mistakenly listened to about 0.0000009 percent of U.S. phone calls.
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The Fiscal Times gets countless calls from all types: PR flacks selling stories, angry government spokespeople and readers eager to give their opinion on our stories. We also get, without fail, dozens of wrong numbers a week.

Apparently, our D.C. bureau has a number similar to that of a Washington hotel. We politely tell these misinformed callers that no, we can’t upgrade their rooms or arrange transportation from the airport.

This is the first thing that came to mind when I read The Washington Post report that the NSA had violated court orders for surveillance of Americans and foreign targets in the United States 2,776 times during the year prior to May 2012. What percentage is that of the roughly 3 billion calls placed each day?  You do the math. 

The Post also reported that thousands of other communications were monitored mistakenly each year since 2008. These violations ranged from simple administrative errors and serious breaches of the law.

Even after these latest revelations, the NSA surveillance program overall is no big deal. If you didn’t think phone calls and emails were being monitored, you’ve had your head in the sand for the last 12 years. But violations of the law are serious, and need to be treated as such. The NSA needs to take steps to make sure these mistakes don’t happen again.


Let's put these mistakes in context, though. If The Fiscal Times gets an average of four wrong numbers each day, that means we get roughly 1,460 misdials a year. In other words, people often make mistakes when it comes to modern communication.

Now lets think about that in the context of global communications. When you combine calls and emails sent in the United States each day there’s no doubt that the volume is in the tens of billions. That means that each year in this country, hundreds of billions, if not trillions of calls and emails are made and sent. The NSA made a few thousand communication mistakes where billions of mistakes were possible.

The NSA said as much in response to the Post’s story.

“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 told the paper. “You can look at it as a percentage of our total activity that occurs each day. 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.”

NSA mistakenly eavesdropped on a tiny fraction of calls – less than .01 percent. In that context, these violations can be chalked up to simple administrative errors. It’s a small price to pay for safety.