The NSA Won't Hand Over Data Because It Literally Can't Keep Track of It

Last week, a US District judge ordered the NSA to stop destroying data that pertains to a pre-Snowden lawsuit against the agency. There's just one teensy weensy problem with that: Apparently NSA's systems handle so much data that it literally cannot find what it's supposed to stop deleting.

The data, which the NSA collects under Section 702 of the Amendments Act to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, is routinely deleted because keeping it would supposedly be "too burdensome." In a court filing, NSA Deputy Director Richard Ledgett writes:

A requirement to preserve all data acquired under section 702 presents significant operational problems, only one of which is that the NSA may have to shut down all systems and databases that contain Section 702 information. [The data] resides within multiple databases contained on multiple systems and the precise manner in which NSA stays consistent with its legal obligations under the [FISA Amendments Act] has resulted from years of detailed interaction.

In other words, the NSA is claiming that its systems are so complex and so extensive, that in order to stop deleting the court-requested data, the agency would have to shut down its entire system to figure out where it's even keeping the data in the first place. Of course we already knew the NSA had to periodically clear the data it holds, we just didn't know they had no apparent way of controlling it.

As the EFF's legal director, Cindy Cohn, told the Washington Post,

To me, it demonstrates that once the government has custody of this information even they can't keep track of it anymore even for purposes of what they don't want to destroy. With the huge amounts of data that they're gathering it's not surprising to me that it's difficult to keep track— that's why I think it's so dangerous for them to be collecting all this data en masse.

What's more, this deeply troubling revelation came about completely by accident. The only reason the EFF is even aware that the NSA might not actually be able to stop systematically deleting its data is because of an email exchange with a JD lawyer, who revealed that the government wasn't even sure if it could preserve data in the first place.

While the NSA is currently requesting that the case be thrown out, there's a decently high chance that the relevant data has already been deleted. But even if it hasn't, it's not like the NSA would have been able to track it down in the first place. [Washington Post]