As an aside during testimony on Capitol Hill today, a National Security Agency representative rather casually indicated that the government looks at data from a universe of far, far more people than previously indicated.
Chris Inglis, the agency's deputy director, was one of several government representatives—including from the FBI and the office of the Director of National Intelligence—testifying before the House Judiciary Committee this morning. Most of the testimony largely echoed previous testimony by the agencies on the topic of the government's surveillance, including a retread of the same offered examples for how the Patriot Act and Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act had stopped terror events.
But Inglis' statement was new. Analysts look "two or three hops" from terror suspects when evaluating terror activity, Inglis revealed. Previously, the limit of how surveillance was extended had been described as two hops. This meant that if the NSA were following a phone metadata or web trail from a terror suspect, it could also look at the calls from the people that suspect has spoken with—one hop. And then, the calls that second person had also spoken with—two hops. Terror suspect to person two to person three. Two hops. And now: A third hop.
Think of it this way. Let's say the government suspects you are a terrorist and it has access to your Facebook account. If you're an American citizen, it can't do that currently (with certain exceptions)—but for the sake of argument. So all of your friends, that's one hop. Your friends' friends, whether you know them or not—two hops. Your friends' friends' friends, whoever they happen to be, are that third hop. That's a massive group of people that the NSA apparently considers fair game.
For a sense of scale, researchers at the University of Milan found in 2011 that everyone on the Internet was, on average, 4.74 steps away from anyone else. The NSA explores relationships up to three of those steps. (See our conversation with the ACLU's Alex Abdo on this.)
Inglis' admission didn't register among the members of Congress present, but immediately resonated with privacy advocates online.
3 hops! That's a LOT OF DATA as my FISA/surveillance people know. A LOT.— Spencer Ackerman (@attackerman) July 17, 2013
Do the math: Your whole contact list. All their contact lists. All THOSE people's contact lists. That's a LOOOT of people. #FISAOvesight— Julian Sanchez (@normative) July 17, 2013
@normative If you don't want to share your contact lists with the government, maybe you just shouldn't know people.— Jon Henke (@JonHenke) July 17, 2013
The hearing was far more critical of the government than previous hearings have been. Members of the House from both political parties had strong words for the agency representatives, often focused on how the letter of the law had been exploited.
Ranking Minority Member John Conyers (MI): "You've already violated the law in my opinion."
Rep. Jerry Nadler (NY): "I believe it's totally unprecedented and goes way beyond the statute."
Rep. Ted Poe (TX): "Do you see a national security exemption in the Fourth Amendment? … We've abused the concept of rights in the name of national security."
The author of the Patriot Act, Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, reminded the government that the act was up for renewal in 2015. The provisions for phone metadata collection, he warned, have "got to be changed … otherwise in a year or year and a half you're not going to have it any more."
Inglis' admission isn't likely to help the effort to convince members of the House that the surveillance programs should be kept as is. Neither will a response offered by DNI counsel Robert Litt. Asked by committee chairman Bob Goodlatte if the government really thought the massive collection of phone records could be kept from the American people, Litt replied, "Well, um, we tried."
The audience chuckled.
Update, 1:10 p.m.: Another bit of news. The longstanding question of whether or not phone metadata collected by NSA includes geolocation data has been answered. "We are not collecting that data," Inglis said, "under this program."
Photo: Inglis is sworn in. (AP)