The NSA maths: Just how big is the dragnet?

Based on agency claims and rough calculation, Jeff Jarvis gives a sense of the vast size of data surveillance

By Natasha Lennard
Published August 13, 2013 3:21PM (EDT)

To make some sense of the size of the online communications data intercepted and hoarded by the NSA, CUNY journalism professor Jeff Jarvi ran some "beer-soaked-napkin numbers" for the Guardian.

The upshot: the agency says it only "touches" 1.6 percent of daily Internet traffic. According to Jarvis' loose calculations, however, that's a pretty whopping "only" -- 1.6 percent of daily traffic equates to something like "400 Googles" and "126 Facebooks" worth of data.

As Jarvis notes:

So, by very rough, beer-soaked-napkin numbers, the NSA's 1.6 percent of net traffic would be half of the communication on the net. That's one helluva lot of "touching."

Keep in mind that, by one estimate, 68.8 percent of email is spam.

And, of course, metadata doesn't add up to much data at all; it's just a few bits per file – who sent what to whom – and that's where the NSA finds much of its supposedly incriminating information. So, these numbers are meaningless when it comes to looking at how much the NSA knows about who's talking to whom. With the NSA's clearance to go three hops out from a suspect, it doesn't take very long at all before this law of large numbers encompasses practically everyone.


Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Dragnet Internet Jeff Jarvis Metadata Nsa Prism Surveillance The Guardian