NSA says it can’t actually search its own emails

The National Security Agency has come under fire for collecting loads of data, including email, from people worldwide. But, apparently, its own email system isn't that great.


Joe Kloc

Internet Culture

Published Jul 23, 2013   Updated Jun 1, 2021, 10:50 am CDT

If there is one thing you’d think the U.S. National Security Agency could do, it’s query a database.

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And yet, after ProPublica reporter Justin Elliott filed a Freedom of Information Act requesting all of the NSA’s emails on a particular topic, a FOIA officer told him that the agency has “no central method to search an email at this time with the way our records are set up, unfortunately.”

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You see, the agency that collects and analyzes at least 2.3 billion messages a month in the U.S. alone cannot, in fact, query it’s own database of office emails. 

The system is “a little antiquated and archaic,” the FOIA officer explained to Elliott.

If this does not yet seem strange to you, consider a recent article in Der Spiegel that revealed how the NSA’s XKeyscore program captures and stores the telephone, email and login data of millions of Germans. An XKeyscore slide published by the magazine depicts a man in a black suit sitting at a desktop computer. A two-way arrow connects his computer to a “database.” Written on the arrow is the word “query.”

The NSA’s response to Elliott’s FOIA is either a triumph of government-subsidized irony or the best PR campaign the agency has ever launched. 

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And certainly, it’s not off message: “We’re a foreign intelligence agency, we don’t have the technical capabilities to [read every email],” U.S. Army General Keith Alexander recently insisted at the Aspen Security Conference. 

“The purpose of these programs,” Alexander continued, “and the reason we use secrecy, is not to hide from the American people, not to hide it from you, but to hide it from those who walk among you who are trying to kill you.”

And of course, there is no better place to hide than the inbox of an NSA agent.

Photo by Soupmeister/Flickr

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*First Published: Jul 23, 2013, 8:37 pm CDT