The Complex

3 Degrees of Separation Is Enough to Have You Watched By the NSA

The NSA's secretive electronic dragnet turns out to be bigger -- a lot bigger -- than previously realized.

In a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday about NSA surveillance activities, the agency's second-in-command, Chris Inglis, said that when analysts try to determine if a particular individual is engaged in terrorist activity, they will look at the communications of people who are as many as three steps removed from that original target.

In practical terms, this means that the number of people who are being caught up in the NSA's electronic nets is vastly larger than previously known -- the number could easily be in the tens of millions. Until today, we had understood that analysts only searched two "hops" beyond their target; that is, they looked at the communications of people with whom the target was communicating, as well as the people those individuals were in touch with.

Adding a third hop exponentially increases the number of innocent people that are caught up in the net whenever the NSA makes an attempt to determine if their original target is actually a terrorist or involved in terrorist activities. And every time that the search extends by one hop, the likelihood of inadvertently collecting the communications of U.S. citizens and legal residents -- who are protected under the law -- shoots up.

So just how many people could be caught in the net? If you're familiar with the concept of six degrees of separation -- the idea that everyone on the planet can be connected to everyone else by six "hops" -- then three hops may not seem to produce a huge number of connections.

But research suggests that we're all more closely connected to each other because of the profusion of digital communications. One study found that each of us is linked to another random person on the planet by 4.7 degrees of separation. And another concluded that any person can find his or her way to a stranger in only three hops.

Now, according to an NSA slide published by the Washington Post, the agency had more than 117,000 "active surveillance targets" in a database associated with the PRISM collection system revealed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. The slide doesn't specify whether this means that more than 117,000 people were actively being surveilled. But generally, a target refers to a single individual.

Now assume that each one of those 117,000 targets communicates with five others. That's 585,000 people in the first hop. Assume that those folks all have five contacts, and you get 2,925,000 in the second hop. But it's the third hop where the numbers start getting ridiculous: again, assuming each target only communicates with five others, and you're at 14,625,000. Assuming that there's no overlap in contacts, this will bring the total number of people in the net to more than 18 million. True, many of us share contacts, which would lower the number. But then, do you know anyone who has only five contacts? In reality, the number would be much higher than 18 million.

And this, the NSA says, is how it determines if someone is "reasonably believed" to be involved in terrorism. 

Despite this sobering revelation, there were some lighter moments in Tuesday's hearing. Committee chairman Bob Goodlatte, a Republican from Virginia, asked a senior intelligence official, "Do you think a program of this magnitude ... could be indefinitely kept secret from the American people?''

"Well, we tried,'' said Robert Litt, the general counsel of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

Officials were also at pains to stress that while NSA surveillance may have inadvertently collected information at times on U.S. citizens, "there has been no one who has abused this [surveillance authority]," said Deputy Attorney General James Cole.

Inglis, the NSA deputy director, added that there had been no "willful abuse" of the programs. But a member of the committee questioned how robust the agency's oversight capabilities are. An annual report to Congress on the NSA's collection of phone records runs less than a page and is only about eight sentences long, said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a Democrat from California. "I think that very clearly this program has gone off the tracks legally," Lofgren said, expressing doubts that Congress would continue to authorize it.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

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