NSA by the numbers

Fear not, says the NSA, we “touch” only 1.6% of daily internet traffic. If, as they say, the net carries 1,826 petabytes of information per day, then the NSA “touches” about 29 petabytes a day. They don’t say what “touch” means. Ingest? Store? Analyze? Inquiring minds want to know.


For context, Google in 2010 said it had indexed only 0.004% of the data on the net. So by inference from the percentages, does that mean that the NSA is equal to 400 Googles? Better math minds than mine will correct me if I’m wrong.

Seven petabytes of photos are added to Facebook each month. That’s .23 petabytes per day. So that means the NSA is 126 Facebooks.

Keep in mind that most of the data passing on the net is not email or web pages. It’s media. According to Sandvine data for the U.S. fixed net from 2013, real-time entertainment accounted for 62% of net traffic, P2P file-sharing for 10.5%. The NSA needn’t watch all those episodes of Homeland (or maybe they should) or listen to all that Cold Play — though I’m sure the RIAA and MPAA are dying to know what the NSA knows about who’s “stealing” what since that “stealing” allegedly accounts for 23.8% of net traffic.

HTTP — the web — accounts for only 11.8% of aggregated up- and download traffic in the U.S., Sandvine says. Communications — the part of the net the NSA really cares about — accounts for 2.9% in the U.S.

So by very rough, beer-soaked-napkin numbers, the NSA’s 1.6% of net traffic would be half of the communication on the net. That’s a fuckuvalota “touching.”

And keep in mind that by one estimate 68.8% of email is spam.

Screenshot 2013-08-10 at 8.02.09 PM


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 incriminating information. So these numbers are meaningless when it comes to looking at how much the NSA knows about who’s talking to whom. A few weeks ago on Twitter, I showed that 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 us all and our cats.

If you have better data (and better math) than I have, please do share it.

* “Reach out and touch someone” art inspired by Josh Stearns