07/26/2013 02:07 pm ET | Updated Jul 31, 2014

How a Theoretical Claim About the NSA Magically Transformed Into Factual Reality

For the last month or so, we've talked a lot about how sloppy, scattered reporting has served to mislead readers -- perhaps deliberately -- about the details of various bombshell National Security Agency (NSA) stories presented by Glenn Greenwald and others. Outrage-porn and link-bait has on more than one occasion miraculously transformed into factual reality. The following is a case study in how it happens.

I recently watched a video monologue by Cenk Uygur via the following tweet:

"Millions Of Gigabytes Collected Daily UNDERWATER By US, England via @CenkUygur"

Millions of gigabytes? That's a lot. So I watched the video on Cenk's YouTube channel (posted on July 17). And sure enough, Cenk delivered a report about an article from The Atlantic, titled "The Creepy, Long-Standing Practice of Undersea Cable Tapping," in which reporter Olga Khazan writes, among other things, that the British Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) is tapping into underwater fiber optic cables in order to intercept communication data. (Not to jump too far ahead, but this story should sound familiar to you.)

There's one major problem with Cenk's big screamer headline: it's simply incorrect.

Once again, however, I hasten to preface that I still consider Cenk a friend, and this really isn't intended to bash him personally. It turns out, Cenk stumbled into a modern game of journalistic "Telephone." In case you're the one person in the world who's never played "Telephone," here's how it works. A phrase or a word is whispered into the ear of one person, then that person whispers the phrase into another ear, and so on. By the time the phrase works its way around the room, and due to memory lapses or misheard whispers, the phrase morphs into something completely different. The internet vastly enables this process.

Based on the post by The Atlantic, Cenk reported that, yes, the GCHQ taps into underwater cables and subsequently shares its intelligence with NSA. To the credit of both Cenk and The Atlantic, each made sure to mention that underwater cable-taps have been occurring for decades. In James Bamford's book, Body of Secrets, we learned about Operation Ivy Bells during which the USS Halibut tapped into a Soviet telecommunications cable and gathered huge volumes of signal intelligence (SIGINT) until a leaker sold details of the operation to the KGB. Elsewhere, the New York Times reported on fiber optic cable taps back in 2005.

Nevertheless, Cenk's monologue finally arrived at the content of his headline: the "millions of gigabytes" of information that's evidently being "collected daily." Again, drawn from The Atlantic's article, Cenk said that this operation, called "Tempora," is literally gathering 21 million gigabytes, or 21 petabytes of data per day. That's 21 times more data than the entire Netflix streaming library. Per day. Here's The Atlantic:

A subsidiary program for these operations -- Tempora -- sucks up around 21 million gigabytes per day and stores the data for a month.

Cenk, who paraphrased The Atlantic, told us that GCHQ is collecting this much data every day and, we're to infer, these agencies are sorting and analyzing it somehow using just 550 analysts split between NSA and GCHQ. That'd be 38,000 gigabytes of data per analyst per day -- or, working around the clock, 1,580 gigabytes per hour! Going back to the Netflix equivalence, these insanely overworked analysts would have to collectively watch the equivalent of the entire Netflix streaming library of movies and TV shows -- 23 times a day -- using some kind of space-time vortex.

Put another way, if all of these communications were compressed at around the same quality as your iTunes library, it would actually take you a full day to listen to just two gigabytes. As a group, and barring some sort of vortex, 550 analysts could only listen to 1,100 gigabytes of phone conversations per day, and that's if they worked 24 hours per day and listened constantly. In reality, it would take 18,918 days or 51 years for 550 analysts to listen to just one day's worth of fiber optic data gathered for Tempora.

And anyway, it's illegal for NSA analysts to warrantlessly listen to or read the communications of U.S. persons.

But okay, The Atlantic and, subsequently, Cenk, said the American and British foreign intelligence agencies are literally collecting 21 million gigabytes per day. So how did The Atlantic get this information? Well, The Atlantic -- one of the most prestigious publications in America -- linked its 21 petabytes claim to a June 25 post by Paul Marks on the New Scientist website titled "Submarine internet cables are a gift for spooks." The Atlantic attained its 21 petabytes claim from this sentence:

The project is said to generate an avalanche of data: 21 million gigabytes per day, including 600 million phone calls.

And where did the New Scientist get this information?

The Guardian.

Specifically, the New Scientist linked to the original Snowden bombshell article from June 21 about GCHQ tapping underwater fiber optic cables. For what it's worth, Glenn Greenwald didn't contribute to this post. Ewen MacAskill, Julian Borger, Nick Hopkins, Nick Davies and James Ball are credited in the byline.

Here's the only mention of "21 million gigabytes" or "21 petabytes" in the entire article:

Each of the cables carries data at a rate of 10 gigabits per second, so the tapped cables had the capacity, in theory, to deliver more than 21 petabytes a day - equivalent to sending all the information in all the books in the British Library 192 times every 24 hours.

Did you see that? "[T]he tapped cables had the capacity, in theory, to deliver more than 21 petabytes a day..." In theory. The entire 21 million gigabytes line was drawn from a theoretical notion presented by the five reporters who authored the article for The Guardian. Put another way, no! NSA and GCHQ are absolutely not gathering and/or analyzing that much data per day.

This entirely invalidates Cenk's screamer headline and the central focus of his rant. But it grew out of a wild, theoretical assertion by The Guardian, which was later transformed into a fact by the New Scientist and repeated by The Atlantic. Had any of the subsequent writers bothered to read the original piece in The Guardian they would've discovered that it was a theoretical claim -- not a statement of fact.

To recap the "Telephone" game:

1) June 21. The Guardian reported that Tempora could "in theory" sweep up 21 million gigabytes ("21 petabytes") of data per day. It's an inconceivably big number meant to frighten readers.

2) June 25. The New Scientist took the bait and printed 21 million gigabytes as a factual reality.

3) July 16. The Atlantic repeated the New Scientist's misinterpretation of The Guardian's information.

4) July 17. Cenk Uygur delivered a monologue using The Atlantic's inaccurate claim and told his tens-of-thousands of viewers that NSA and GCHQ are definitely gathering 21 million gigabytes of data per day. (As of Thursday night, the video had 30,834 views.)

This Telephone game, sparked by coy, agenda-driven articles by Greenwald and his colleagues at The Guardian, has occurred throughout the entirety of the Snowden/NSA saga. It happened at the very beginning with the deceptive "direct access" claim and it continues today. It's become so pervasive that elected members of Congress are behaving almost as if they'd never heard about NSA surveillance prior to June, 2013.

Ultimately, if we're going to engage in a debate about all of this, certain people need to calm down and very carefully read everything that drops. It's a complicated issue that demands an even-keel and a clear understanding of what's being reported. Nothing should be taken at face value because, to paraphrase a line that's become synonymous with this story, inaccuracies and outright lies have circled the globe before reality gets its pants on.

Cross-posted at The Daily Banter.

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