Metadata has had ‘minimal’ effect on catching terrorists: Report

Law enforcement and intelligence agencies can’t get enough information – especially if governments are squeezing them for results.

So it is that the U.S. National Intelligence Agency, among other electronic spy agencies, insists it has to have access to communications metadata to do their jobs.

But a report Monday from the New America Foundation casts doubt on how valuable the information is.

The foundation, chaired by Google executive chair Eric Schmidt, reviewed claims by the NSA that the metadata has kept the U.S. safe from terrorism and after looking at 225 people recruited by al-Qaeda or like minded groups found the contribution of metatdata analysis was “minimal” to their detection.

Only in less than two per cent of the cases could telephone metadata be found to have plate a role in their cases, said the report authors.

By comparison, NSA programs involving the surveillance of non U.S. persons outside the United States under U.S. law played a role in 4.4 per cent of the cases.

“Surveillance of American phone metadata has had no discernible impact on preventing acts of terrorism and only the most marginal of impacts on preventing terrorist-related activity, such as fundraising for a terrorist group,” says a summary of the report.

“Furthermore, our examination of the role of the database of U.S. citizens’ telephone metadata in the single plot the government uses to justify the importance of the program – that of Basaaly Moalin, a San Diego cabdriver who in 2007 and 2008 provided $8,500 to al-Shabaab, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Somalia – calls into question the necessity of the Section 215 bulk collection (of data) program.” It took the FBI two months before it began monitoring Moalin’s calls.

The real problem for U.S. counterterrorism officials isn’t a lack of information, the report’s authors argue, but that they don’t sufficiently understand or widely share what they have.

In Canada the Harper government tried to pass Bill C-30 so our agencies could get lawful access to  metadata. Under protest, the government withdrew the bill. However, the recent cyber bullying bill would give peace officers the right to order a person to preserve data without a court order.

Read the full report here

Howard Solomon
Howard Solomon
Currently a freelance writer, I'm the former editor of and Computing Canada. An IT journalist since 1997, I've written for several of ITWC's sister publications including and Computer Dealer News. Before that I was a staff reporter at the Calgary Herald and the Brampton (Ont.) Daily Times. I can be reached at hsolomon [@]

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