How Many Database Queries Do NSA Analysts Perform Each Day?

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Last night, based on a statement from the NSA’s director of compliance, I wrote that NSA analysts performed about 600,000 database queries per day. This prompted several suggestions on Twitter that perhaps I was unfamiliar with SQL and had no idea how databases work. For example, this one:

@ggreenwald @kdrum select * from news.articles where technical_literacy < 0 limit 600000

Snark aside, this tweet is pointing out that a single query can return many records from a database, so perhaps the NSA’s estimate referred to the total number of records they retrieved, not the actual number of queries they made. Maybe! But according to the New York Times, the NSA guy said “the agency performs about 20 million such queries each month.” Is it possible that he misspoke? Or that the reporter misinterpreted him? Sure. But it doesn’t sound like it. There’s nothing there about the number of records retrieved. He said the agency “performs” 20 million queries per month.

As I mentioned last night, it’s possible that many of these are automated queries for one purpose or another. Actual human beings might perform only a fraction of them. Until there’s some clarification from NSA, though, there’s no particular reason to think that. For now, anyway, it sounds like he’s talking about actual queries from NSA analysts.

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DEMOCRACY DOES NOT EXIST...

without free and fair elections, a vigorous free press, and engaged citizens to reclaim power from those who abuse it.

In this election year unlike any other—against a backdrop of a pandemic, an economic crisis, racial reckoning, and so much daily crazy—Mother Jones' journalism is driven by one simple question: Will America will move closer to, or further from, justice and equity in the years to come?

If you're able to, please join us in this mission with a donation today. Our reporting right now is focused on voting rights and election security, corruption, disinformation, racial and gender equity, and the climate crisis. We can’t do it without the support of readers like you, and we need to give it everything we've got between now and November. Thank you.

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