We all know the NSA is an evil, shadowy organization hellbent on taking over the world! They can go anywhere, be anywhere, monitor every email, monitor every phone call and are probably watching you even now!
Or, possibly not. At least not if you live in the real world.
The National Security Agency (sooper sekrit shadowy website here, complete with, I notice to my amusement, some broken links and a kids page), is the government agency charged with cryptography, data mining, communications monitoring and electronic eavesdropping on the world. As such, and due in no small part to the extreme secrecy that has surrounded the Agency since its inception, it has attracted no small number of conspiracy theories.
One of the more fun ones, and one that I’m currently seeing while watching The Bourne Ultimatum, centers around ECHELON, a major communications eavesdropping project that many people, including the producers of the movie, would have you believe is able to scan every single phone call on the planet, all at once, record them, and check them for secret code words!
The system apparently does exist, but certainly doesn’t do what’s shown in the movies and widely believed by conspiracy theorists everywhere. How could it? There’s quite literally billions of phone calls made around the planet every day. I’d not be surprised if there were a billion an hour.
Besides, what about different voices and accents? Surely even the most sophisticated voice recognition software would have a challenge understanding even basic words in every single accent there is. Not to mention the thousands of different languages. Heck, I doubt such software would be programmed for pig Latin. All the clever terrorist would have to do is call their “bomb” an “ombay” and they’ve defeated us! Oh, noez!
Speaking just of the word “bomb”, if that was a keyword, you’d have probably billions of hit just in the USA alone. You’d have “That’s da bomb, baby!”, “That movie was a bomb!”, “My grandfather defused bombs during World War II,” and the like. Just about any key word the system was programmed for would pick up millions, if not billions, of hits per day. You’d quickly run out of people who would be able to scan every hit for the one that might be legit.
In an article in the Straight Dope, Cecil Adams discussed this very concept. Amusingly, I note that it was published a few months before the September 11th attacks, but he uses bin Ladden as an example of what one would be looking for. He’s part of the plot!
I don’t think the NSA would want to monitor every single phone call, email, fax, etc that was being sent around the world. It would be way too labor intensive to eliminate all the false positives. I’m pretty sure that ECHELON, or any system like it, would be something they’d use in a targeted fashion. They probably have a certain group of people they monitor and listen to every word they say, not just a few keywords.
So the NSA isn’t listening to your phone calls, monitoring your email or intercepting your text messages. Sorry, you just aren’t that important.