The Real Reason the NSA Wants Your Data: Predictive Law Enforcement

By Eric Siegel

The NSA can leverage bulk data collection with predictive analytics to target law enforcement activities. But this little-known capability both intensifies and redefines the debate over how much data governments should be collecting.


The US’s National Security Agency (NSA) has endured intense global scrutiny and suffered heavy backlash over its mass data collection that was unveiled in detail by whistleblower Edward Snowden in 2013. But don’t give too much credence to the news or even the books – public discourse leaves out the greatest power law enforcement stands to gain from this data.


Summary of the mainstream debate regarding NSA data collection:

• Privacy advocates: The NSA is violating civil liberties by collecting data on a massive scale about private citizens, including the majority who are not even suspected of any wrongdoing. Access to this data, whether in-house or by proxy via telecom companies, facilitates arbitrary snooping.

• The NSA (and supportive legislators): We require comprehensive data in-house so we can rapidly investigate specific individuals when they become of interest. We do not inspect the activities of ordinary civilians in general.


This contentious dialogue only touches on half the story. Both sides – including the most visible critics of the recent NSA bulk data shutdown – fail to address what’s really at stake for law enforcement: Data empowers not only the investigation of established suspects, but also the discovery of new suspects. I would like to propose the following terminology for this emerging form of data driven law enforcement:

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