As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve become a big fan of The Middleman. Monday’s episode featured The Middleman and faithful sidekick Wendy Watson on the trail of a cursed tuba (being able to write plot summaries that feature the words “cursed tuba” is one the reason why I love this show). To assist the investigation, their robotic assistant Ida starts scanning the global telecommunications and surveillance networks for any mention of tubas. Not surprisingly, the next few scenes show our heroes slipping into near-comas of boredom as irrelevant hit after irrelevant hit piles up hour after hour. Interestingly enough, this is exactly the same problem that real super-high-tech spy agencies suffer from.
For decades, agencies such as the National Security Agency (hi guys!) have worked to expand their reach when it comes to being able to eavesdrop on electronic communications, a type of spying that falls under the rubric of SIGINT, or signals intelligence. Their most famous effort is ECHELON, a global network of listening stations designed to scoop up all satellite transmissions. (ECHELON still doesn’t officially exist, but there’s a great big report by the European Parliament you can read.)
But while a lot of people don’t like the idea of a system that spends its time snooping on everyone‘s phone calls, emails and surfing habits, etc, (and rightly so), the bigger problem for spooks is that all the normal back and forth of our daily lives that we bounce around between phones and computers is important to us, but a cacophony of noise to someone searching for the signs of, say, another terrorist attack.
The goal of engineers at places like the NSA these days is to throw away as much of the information that they have carefully gathered as they can, and as quickly and automatically as possible, so as not to drown human analysts in irrelevant information. Text-based communications, such as emails, can be easily scanned for keywords (such as “plutonium”) by computers; searching for keywords in telephone conversations using machines is a lot tougher. The European Parliament report believes that computers can be configured to monitor individual voices of interest but that scanning everyone’s phone call this way is probably impossible at the moment — at least until the NSA gets their very own Ida.