Making hay in the dark

Imagine that there is a group of people, dedicated to finding needles. We’ll call them the Needle Seekers’ Association. They’re looking for loose and lost needles. After all, those things can be dangerous if you’re not expecting them! And where are you most likely to find loose needles? In haystacks, of course! So the Needle Seekers collect haystacks.

A lot of haystacks.

Just so many haystacks. In fact, they soon end up with more haystacks than all the farmers in the county. But hey, gotta find those needles somehow. So the seekers collect hay, and sort hay, and search through hay, and bring out needles.

Then they keep the hay.

In fact, they don’t just keep it, they use it! They get into the hay business, and they sell quite a lot of it. With their huge stock of hay, the Needle Seekers’ Association becomes the biggest hay seller in town.

Then one day, a traveler comes to town, observes what’s going on, and asks, “Why do these hay sellers call themselves needle seekers? I’m seeing a lot of hay in what they do, but where are all the needles?”

Where, indeed.

The impetus for this story is the latest revelation from Snowden and company that the NSA scoops up and keeps data on 9 totally innocent people for every genuine surveillance target (and even that may be giving them too much credit). They sort this data and then, as the article puts it, they “retain, store, search and distribute to its government customers” this information. As Boing Boing puts it here:

Almost everything in the NSA cache is haystack, in other words, with just a few needles. And the hay is deliberately collected and retained, even though it consists of things like love notes, baby pictures, medical records, and other intimate data belonging to people who are under no suspicion at all.

And just what are they doing with all that hay? Rest assured that they are doing something with it. After all, when you see a farmer’s field full of haystacks, it’s safe to assume that the farmer isn’t actually looking for needles in them.