White House denials are so often overt lies these days that when they say something at least plausible it’s worth examining. Today, Press Secretary Jay Carney insisted the NSA “examine only a very small percentage” of the world’s Internet traffic.
Examine as in give serious scrutiny to. That may sound weird when you first hear it, because we’ve got so much evidence that the vast majority of online communication is surveilled as a matter of course. But here’s thing thing: most of the Internet isn’t communication.
Sandvine’s reports on North America have been really informative on this, showing that in the ballpark of 1/3 of Internet traffic is just plain Netflix streaming in North America. And that’s just one video service, with a good chunk of the top 10 also video streaming services.
Unless someone’s attaching big pictures, all your email for the day is unlikely to be much more than a megabyte. By contrast, streaming a whole baseball game in high-def is about 4,000 times that much, 4 GB. The NSA probably isn’t scrutinizing all the data being streamed from MLB.tv or Netflix or Hulu or any of the countless other services not because they can’t, but because there’s really no need to when they can intercept (or flat out subpoena) the data showing what you watched if they really want to know.
I don’t think anyone really thought the NSA was literally monitoring most of the bandwidth on the Internet to begin with, but that doesn’t make what they’re doing any more palatable. Your credit card number is just a few bytes. All of your instant messages in a given day are unlikely to be more than a few kB. A “very small percentage” of Internet traffic is still more than enough to be devastating to our personal privacy.