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NSA and Google: Separated at birth?

Here at Tech Blog Central, we've been following the media outcry over the National Security Agency and the supposed surreptitious perusing of telephone logs. USA Today recently reported on the NSA's 'massive government database containing the phone records of tens of millions of Americans.' Also be sure to check out GCN senior writer Patience Wait's analysis on what the challenges would be in parsing that much data.
Various advocacy groups have charged that the agency is using powerful computers to analyze these telephone call logs in an overbroad attempt to ferret out individuals who may involved in suspicious activities (though whether NSA supposedly copied the data or just somehow has access to it is still unclear). This sort of alleged 'fishing expedition,' as the Electronic Frontier Foundation put it, grievously tramples on the rights of U.S. citizens, privacy advocates charge.

One offhand observation: This business of data fishing is also the mainstay of another entity, one we all know and love, or least use quite a bit'-namely Google Inc., of Mountain View, Calif. Like NSA, this company has keeps tabs on vast realms of electronic communication'though in Google's case, it is the World Wide Web under scrutiny, as well as the searching habits of the company's own users. And like NSA, it looks to build intelligence from discrete user actions, albeit an intelligence that reveals more about purchasing preferences than terrorist proclivities. Nonetheless, both organizations share the single task of determining an individual's intentions from a mountain of tangential data.

Since it is a slow day for tech news, we decided to do a bit of compare-and-contrast between the two organizations. Using Google, here is what we found:

TYPES OF EMPLOYEES:
NSA: 'Mathematicians, linguists, engineers, physicists, computer scientists, engineers and other specialists and staff,' according to USA Today.
Google: Mathematicians, engineers, computer scientists. For linguistic duties, the company is leaning towards translation technologies .

NUMBER OF EMPLOYEES:
NSA: 30,000.
Google: 5,680.

NUMBER OF COMPUTERS:
NSA: Undetermined, though someone contributing to Wikipedia claims that NSA is the world's largest holder of supercomputers.
Google: 100,000 Linux-based servers, Wikipedia again ( estimate.)



WORK:
NSA: Although agency has a number of missions, one of its chief duties is 'signals intelligence,' or the act of analyzing intercepted foreign electronic communications in order to pinpoint potential threats to the country.
Google: Google generates revenue by characterizing its users' behaviors and then matching, as closely as possible, the interests of users with the products offered by advertisers, according to the company's latest annual filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

BUDGET:
NSA:$7.5 billion (as estimated by GlobalSecurity.org).
Google:$4.7 billion (estimated from 2005revenue and sales ).

AUTHORITY:
NSA: The October 1952 revision of the National Security Council Intelligence Directive No. 9, championed by the President Harry S. Truman, which called for the creation of a central agency that would conduct foreign communications intelligence activities.
Google: The terms of service users agree to when using Google or signing up to a Google service, such as Gmail. 'Google collects personal information when you register for a Google service or otherwise voluntarily provide such information,' according to Google's privacy policy. The company may combine multiple sources of information to build up a behavioral profile that may be used to better customize services and advertisements.

COLOR OF HOME PAGE:
Google: White .
NSA: Black .
(Note: Thematic Web site color is more of a function of marketing than any real indicator of intent.)

HEADQUARTERS:
NSA: Fort Mead, Md.
Google: Mountain View, Calif. (Note: Google cofounder Sergey Brin grew up in Greenbelt, Md., a few miles south of Fort Mead. His father, a mathematician teaches at the University of Maryland).

YEARLY ELECTRIC BILL:
NSA: $21 million (USA Today).
Google: $100-$200 million (a probably over-enthusiastic estimate, from a Sun Microsystems executive quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle about IT power issues in general.)

BIGGEST CHALLENGE:
NSA: Finding software robust enough to analyze immense amounts of data.
Google: Finding enough storage space, according to a quote in the International Herald Tribune.

MOTTO:
NSA: '"In God We Trust, In Everyone Else We Monitor' (unofficial).
Google: 'Don't Be Evil.'

So make of this admittedly superficial set of comparisons what you will. We only wonder if there are partnership possibilities afoot. Could Google teach NSA some tricks about teasing intelligence from data? One interesting sidenote is that both organizations seem to use a lot of mathematicians. Could their demands for this talent led to a shortage of number wranglers in the U.S.? Don't ask us. Literally. We barely passed our last calculus class.

Posted By Joab Jackson

Posted by Brad Grimes, Joab Jackson on May 26, 2006 at 9:39 AM


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Reader Comments

Wed, Jun 24, 2009

you are wrong about the motto... the motto is "in God we trust, all others we monitor" And subsequently homeland security has stolen that motto... its been an NSA motto for 30 plus years

Fri, Jun 2, 2006 Chris Parente MD

Joab, Brad:Very interesting comparison, and intuitively it makes sense. At the search technology level it breaks down, however.The NSA (presumably) is looking for very obscure, arcane information -- the veritable needle in a data haystack. So (again presumably, I don't know anymore than the next citizen) NSA personnel must fashion long, very obscure seach queries looking for very precise answers, which they've some modeled as dangerous or potentially so.Google search technology, on the other hand, is designed to support an advertising business model. Answers that are most popular are optimized, delivering more Adword clicks and more revenue. Did you know that Sergey Brin and Larry Page looked down on this kind of model back in engineering school, questioning whether it could ever deliver the most relevant responses? Saul Hansell wrote a nice story about that last October. Excerpt below with link -- I think at this point NYT makes you buy full text:In a New York Times article yesterday, it was revealed that even as they designed the business plan for Google as graduate students, Larry Page and Sergey Brin realized that a search engine designed to support advertising was not the best model: 'In many ways, Larry Page and Sergey Brin seem an unlikely pair to lead an advertising revolution. As Stanford graduate students sketching out the idea that became Google, the two software engineers sniffed in an academic paper that "advertising-funded search engines will inherently be biased toward the advertisers and away from the needs of consumers." Full text of article: (registration required) http://www.nytimes.com/2005/10/30/business/yourmoney/30google.html?pagewanted=printChris Parentewww.gotostrategic.com

Wed, May 31, 2006 articles security-globalization

It's the Electronic Frontier Foundation, although Freedom is a nice thing too. And "their" class-action lawsuit has nothing to do with call records (Att qua SBC) and everything to do with Internet traffic (Att qua WorldNet), for what it's worth...

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