SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. The news that the National Security Agency is collecting reams of telephone data and tracking Internet behavior has alarmed civil liberties groups. President Obama believes U.S. citizens have no need to worry.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: One of the things that we're going to have to discuss and debate is how are we striking this balance between the need to keep the American people safe and our concerns about privacy, because there are some tradeoffs involved.
SIMON: But as NPR's Dina Temple-Raston reports, those tradeoffs are getting more politically fraught.
DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: There's a buzzword for the practice of collecting, storing and analyzing quantities of information. It's known as big data.
STEWART BAKER: I think we're beginning to see a capability to handle very large volumes and to find some bits of meaning that otherwise might have been hidden.
TEMPLE-RASTON: That's Stewart Baker, and he used to be general counsel at the NSA. He says big data is going to be a staple of intelligence analysis in the future.
BAKER: As data becomes more easily searched, more easily analyzed, that kind of search is becoming routine.
TEMPLE-RASTON: The NSA data collection programs in the news this week offer a clue on how big data could help fight terrorism. Let's say U.S. intelligence officials are intercepting phone calls by al-Qaida leaders in Yemen and one of the leaders calls a number in the United States. The person who answers is on the line just a couple of seconds. Then, three hours later, he receives another call from Yemen. Stewart Baker says a huge database of telephone calls coming in and out of the U.S., like the one the NSA apparently has built, would be invaluable in locating that person.
BAKER: You can't do that unless you have all the information and can then do a very narrow search saying who received a call - two calls - three hours apart from Yemen on this day at this time?
TEMPLE-RASTON: There probably aren't a lot of people who would fit that criteria. The NSA has also apparently been secretly collecting information on foreigners overseas from companies such as Facebook and Apple. The Internet surveillance program collects emails, chat services, videos and stored data. Baker says that database could provide valuable counterterrorism information, too.
BAKER: Suppose that you discover that al-Qaida has begun providing partial operational information on a website.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Operational information, like giving instructions for a future attack.
BAKER: They're just putting numbers at the bottom of a particular version of Inspire magazine that seemed like random numbers but which few operators know are actually important.
TEMPLE-RASTON: He says the numbers may be encrypted but that would be a good data point to search, as well. Analysts could use an algorithm to find everyone who visited that website and has emails that use the same kind of encryption. That could help U.S. law enforcement officials find a suspect, or at least narrow down the search. Then there's the next level of big data - trying to predict the future.
J. KIRKE WIEBE: There's a science, if you will, of intelligence called traffic analysis.
TEMPLE-RASTON: J. Kirke Wiebe worked at the NSA as an analyst for 30 years.
WIEBE: It's concerned with communications and looking for patterns in communications that can be associated with meaning that's useful to get some insight in what someone's intentions are.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Predicting someone's intentions. So, if the current regime of collecting information makes civil libertarians nervous, having a computer spit out random patterns that might point to someone as a suspect could raise even more privacy concerns.
SIMON: NPR's Dina Temple-Raston, and she joins us now to pursue this issue a little more. Dina, so is the government sucking up every scrap of information, packing it into an enormous ball of yarn and then trying to look through it for patterns?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, that's where this seems to be going. The program they have, looking at the Internet behavior of foreigners now, that's what they seem to be doing with that program. Stores like Target have been using huge volumes of sales information to try to predict customer behavior - big balls of yarn, as you say. And now the intelligence community is trying to do that, too. Telephone records, though, are a little bit trickier.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, because the ones they have been collecting are phone numbers potentially of Americans - the in and out phone calls in the United States. They have permission from a federal court to do that collection as opposed to actually analyzing the data but civil libertarians have a problem with that. Here's an analogy they're using. This collection of information is a little like a bomb-sniffing dog coming into your house whenever it wants. It comes in, sniffs for bombs, doesn't find a bomb but it comes in and sniffs anyway. We don't know if the NSA has a computer program that's sniffing all this data.
SIMON: NPR's Dina Temple-Raston, thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.