Written as editor of the New Statesman’s NS Tech and first published here.
If you do one thing this month, aside from washing and dressing and probably going to work, you should go to watch docu-thriller A Good American.
The star is Bill Binney, former ace codebreaker and technical lead at the NSA turned whistleblower, who claims he and his swat team of colleagues built the technology that could have stopped 9/11.
ThinThread, a “big-ass graph” of communications metadata from across the world, was shut down by the NSA just weeks before the attacks on the World Trade Centre. “It absolutely would have prevented 9/11,” Binney says in the film’s moving opening scenes.
Having been the envy of the world, House Intelligence Committee staffer Diane Roark found herself looking at a much-diminished, mid-90s NSA that was struggling with digital change. “They hadn’t even started moving from digital to analogue and there was already too much data,” she says.
Then she found Binney, along with colleagues Kirk Wiebe and Edward Loomis, and contractor Tom Drake, had quietly started a “skunkworks” where they were working on ThinThread.
Binney says it solved all the problems of the “volume, velocity and variety” of big data in one go. But after realising they’d built “the most powerful analytics tools in history”, the team says they also built in privacy protections, meaning those who weren’t ‘of interest’ wouldn’t even have their data kept in the social graph.
That idea is worlds away from the mass spying networks being established all over the world today. Binney even appearedin front of lawmakers in the UK earlier this year to warn against the bulk acquisition powers being created under the Investigatory Powers Bill.
“You have to get away from bulk acquisition dumping on your analysts because it makes your analysts fail,” he said at the time. “They have failed consistently since 9/11 and even before that.”
The long-serving former civil servant is damning of the political leaders who he says have ignored intelligence all the way from Vietnam to today.
ThinThread was eventually dropped in favour of Trailblazers, an outsourced analogue to digital programme that became the subject of a complaint made by Binney and team for “corruption, fraud, waste and abuse”.
They claim millionaires were made from the contracts awarded for the Trailblazer programme. Those involved went on to take higher office, while Binney’s team was prevented from doing business post-NSA and even got raided by the FBI.
So what happened when they booted up ThinThread and ran the software after 9/11 just to check? Terrifying stuff.
US, Europe and UK-wide release is 23rd September