Austrian director Friedrich Moser is a self-confessed fan of spy stories, so it's not surprising he made a documentary about the NSA's former meta-data expert Bill Binney. Titled A Good American
, the film played at the International Film Festival Rotterdam. Bill Binney was one of the guests at the festival, and was greeted with applause at all his appearances.
Meta-data is data about data, and for decades Bill Binney managed to work miracles with it. Working as an analyst for the US National Security Agency, he extracted valid information from phone-calls, emails, documents, even when the contents of those were encrypted beyond deciphering. Knowing what people say and write to each other may be interesting, but establishing the fact that they're part of a network is often just as important, and that is what meta-data is especially useful for.
Using a select set of parameters, Binney and his colleagues created a global meta-data tracking network which was efficient and remarkably effective. Terrorist attacks could be predicted not by listening to what was said, but by the amount of activity in a network. What the attack would constitute and who would be involved could be deduced by seeing which people in a network were most active. Early uses showed that this system, dubbed ThinThread, worked remarkably well, quickly ferreting out entire organizations while using only a fraction of the data normally used for such an effort.
But alas, A Good American
is not a documentary about the good guys winning. When the NSA got itself a new top management in the nineties, with ties to big companies, Binney's ThinThread was discarded for being too cheap. It could not be used to extract significant amounts of money from congress, and the team was therefore ignored, suspended, and later even disbanded, while the NSA pursued the far costlier and inefficient Trailblazer program. Test results were faked, reviews were heavily redacted, and benchmarks between ThinThread and Trailblazer were deemed too embarrassing for top management to be disclosed.
While this all perhaps seems to be a merely unfortunate waste of taxpayer money, things turned quite sinister in 2001 when the 9-11 attack on the World Trade Center happened, an attack which was later proven to have been effectively predicted by ThinThread. Instead of relying more on ThinThread, high-ranking officials in the NSA callously joked that 9-11 was the best thing that ever happened to the NSA, as they would now get virtually limitless funding from Congress for years to come. Meanwhile, the members of the ThinThread team were discredited, and even persecuted by the FBI on fake charges. What little remains of the thinThread code is currently used for surveillance of private data on... well, basically everyone, regular American citizens included.
Friedrich Moser tells this story slowly, first establishing the merits and successes of the ThinThread team, then explaining what meta-data is. For anyone aware of the story or with a background in Information management, this part might be a tad tedious, but there is no denying Moser's ability to slowly-but-surely lead everyone to the central issue. And when the ThinThread project collapses as surely as the Twin Towers did, Moser shows what made Bill Binney become a whistle-blower, accusing the top management of the NSA of waste, fraud, and abuse in their use of the Trailblazer program.
Does this make A Good American
a great film? It sure is an interesting one, and it makes a good case for ThinThread, but you do only get one side of the story. Bill Binney and Friedrich Moser don't pull punches, and very specifically point their fingers at some select individuals, but all of those have declined to comment. Nobody even speaks on behalf of the Trailblazer program, and as predictable as that probably is, it is very unsatisfying.
Still, A Good American
got rated a whopping 4.4 out of 5 by the Rotterdam audience, and ended in the audience top-20
of the festival.
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