Are Snowden’s NSA revelations “1984” become real or “Mad Men” in PowerPoint?

In yet another of the weekly revelations from the Snowden NSA PowerPoint slides, Guardian journalists have now reported that the NSA and GCHQ have been allegedly spying on Angry Birds users. Not content with scooping the seemingly limitless banality of the majority of communications that the NSA is allegedly analysing, the NSA is apparently also interested in finding out where and when you play games on your phone.

There is every sign that the Snowden story has perhaps played itself out. Although there is no doubt that security agencies have overstepped their bounds in the extent of the surveillance they have been carrying out, there is an unanswered question as to what they can, if anything, actually do with it all.

According to the media, we are to believe that the NSA is not only capable of monitoring every bit of data on the Internet, but that they can then do sophisticated analyses on this data and tell all sorts of things about every person being surveilled. Whilst it is possibly in the interest of the NSA for everyone to believe that they are capable of pulling together all of this information to spot impending threats, the question is; can they really?

In answering that question, it is worth looking at the NSA’s capabilities in the context of its size and funding. The Washington Post has published the purported budget of the intelligence agencies of the US, referred to as the “Black Budget.” The Black Budget funded the CIA, NSA, Justice Department and a couple of other agencies to the tune of around $53 billion dollars in 2013 alone. To put this into context however, in 2013, Microsoft and Google’s operating expenses were roughly equivalent at $51 billion. Of that $53 billion, the portion that the NSA spent on its data analysis and surveillance was about $5.3 billion. This is the equivalent to a division in Microsoft or Google.

The staff numbers supposedly working on security matters in the US is about 107,000. Compare this to the 145,000 employees working for Google and Microsoft.

What is the relevance of the comparison between the security services and Google and Microsoft? Well, firstly, consider what Google has been capable of in terms of its own analysis of people based on the wealth of data that people willingly give to them from mobile phones running Android, from search and from using Google apps like gmail and calendar. The truth is, not much. Google Now, Google’s personal assistant will try and tell you things like how long it will take to get to a place of interest for example. This is not based on anything more sophisticated than whether you visited the place at some point. It doesn’t make any attempt to work out whether you visit the place on a particular day for example, it is just based on the fact that you visited a place from somewhere that is considered your “home”. Given all of Google’s capabilities, it’s abilities to draw any intelligent conclusions about us appears extremely limited.

The other aspect to consider is the nature of the information that Snowden took from the NSA. Journalists are basing all of their assumptions on PowerPoint presentations. Imagine for a minute that someone stole all of the internal documentation and presentations from Google and Microsoft and they were released, without context on the world. What sorts of things would we assume that these companies were doing if we were able to see these documents? Well, having worked at Microsoft, there were any number of projects that were proposed that would have done almost magical things if they were ever made a reality. But the majority never did see the light of day. They were just the enthusiastic ideas of smart people uninhibited by the practicalities of the real world issues that would stop them becoming reality. Anyone seeing the Microsoft or Google presentations out of context however would possibly assume that their capabilities were far more sophisticated than they actually were.

Ever since the Snowden story broke, newspapers, especially it seems, the Guardian, have been breaking stories regularly as they process the trove of documents that Snowden took from the NSA. The entire Angry Birds story was based on a PowerPoint slide that speculated about what information could be obtained from ad networks from social networks or games. This then became accepted fact and Rovio has borne the brunt of the accusation and had their website defaced as a result. Even academics seem to have accepted as fact that Rovio is actually now guilty of providing information to GCHQ. This is based on what is in essence a marketing slide, not a technical paper or manual on what actually is happening.

The Snowden affair has snowballed into an all-pervasive paranoia about intelligence agencies being able to somehow know everything about all of us. Ever since George Orwell put the idea of the all-seeing eye of totalitarian rule in 1984 65 years ago, we have been collectively terrified of it becoming a reality. Unfortunately this has possibly led to a predisposition to see threats where none exist and discussions about the issues of privacy conflated with all-out spying.