The NSA Actually Named a Programme Skynet

By Kate Knibbs on at

In the Terminator franchise, Skynet is an evil military computer system that launches war on humanity. And at some point, someone in the National Security Agency sat down and thought, “Damn, that’s a sick thing to name a secret system!”

Malevolent undertones of aspirations to unchecked aggression be damned, I guess, because Skynet is real. A report from The Intercept today detailed how the NSA’s Skynet programme uses metadata to pick out potential terrorists from bulk data collection. (You know, the kind of bulk data collection ruled unlawful by a US court earlier this week.)

The NSA’s Skynet has bigger problems than getting saddled with an appropriately menacing name: As The Intercept reported, it misidentified a prominent Al Jazeera reporter as a terrorist.

According to the presentation, the NSA uses its version of SKYNET to identify people that it believes move like couriers used by Al Qaeda’s senior leadership. The programme assessed Zaidan as a likely match, which raises troubling questions about the U.S. government’s method of identifying terrorist targets based on metadata.

Skynet (the real one) works by analysing metadata to look for suspicious behaviours, like swapping SIM cards out frequently or only accepting incoming calls. And like Skynet (the fake evil one), it may be involved with sending automated machines to kill people, as The Intercept pointed out:

As other documents from Snowden revealed, drone targets are often identified in part based on metadata analysis and cell phone tracking. Former NSA director Michael Hayden famously put it more bluntly in May 2014, when he said, “we kill people based on metadata.”

This isn’t the first time the NSA was inspired by major motion pictures— Director Keith Alexander built his war room to resemble Star Trek’s Starship Enterprise. But it does underline in big fat marker how tone-deaf the NSA can be. Still waiting to hear about its HAL 9000 programme.

[The Intercept]