Aurich Lawson When the first revelations about the National Security Agency’s (NSA) widespread collection of phone call metadata and Internet traffic began to surface, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham noted that for those not talking to terrorists on the phone, “We don’t have anything to worry about. I’m glad that activity is going on, but it is limited to tracking people who are suspected to be terrorists and who they may be talking to.” Turns out the data collection is not so limited. In testimony yesterday before the House Judiciary Committee, National Security Agency Deputy Director Chris Inglis said that the NSA’s probing of data in search of terrorist activity extended “two to three hops” away from suspected terrorists. Previously, NSA leaders had said surveillance was limited to only two “hops” from a suspect.
If you’ve ever played “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” or used LinkedIn to try to reach someone professionally, you know how small the world of interconnected contacts can be. When you use big data tools to mine for relationships, the world gets even smaller. That third hop in connections greatly expands the probability of innocent people worldwide being scooped up into the NSA’s surveillance machine to include a good-sized share of American citizens—citizens who Senator Graham said “don’t have anything to worry about.” 1