In a House Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday, the NSA admitted it analyzed far more data
from American citizens than previously revealed, and was lambasted by a bipartisan panel of lawmakers.
The most revelatory admission by the NSA's deputy director Chris Inglis, is that the agency looks "two or three hops" from terror suspects when evaluating terror activity. That third "hop" is new. The first hop is you. The second hop is people connected to you. The third hop is people connected to all the people in the second hop.
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.
The members of the committee didn't seem to pick up on this bit of shocking new information, and didn't focus on it, but they had plenty of criticism for the massive surveillance program, with Jim Sensenbrenner, GOP author of the Patriot Act and warning
that Congress might very well cancel the program. In one exchange, he focused on Section 215 of the Patriot Act, under which the dragnet surveillance of cell phone data has been collected. Section 215 requires that all data collected be relevant to an actual terrorist investigation. The government, with help from a compliant FISA court, says all
calls are relevant. Sensenbrenner is having none of that.
“Doesn’t that make a mockery of the legal standard, because you’re trying to have it both ways?” [...]
“Section 215 expires at the end of 2015,” Sensenbrenner warned Cole. “Unless you realize you’ve got a problem, that is not going to be renewed. There are not the votes in the House of Representatives to renew Section 215. You have to change how you operate Section 215, otherwise in two and a half years you’re not going to have it any more.”
That's just a sampling of the tenor of the hearing. Here's a bit more
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."
This is by no means the end of the Patriot Act or even of Section 215. Not as long as committed NSA supporter Sen. Dianne Feinstein draws breath as the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee. But that the Republican House of Representatives is actually conducting some actual investigation and oversight into a real
scandal isn't nothing. It's an encouraging start.