NSA man: 'Tell me about your Turkish connections'

Spooks ask Dabbsy to suggest a nice hotel with pool

Something for the Weekend, Sir? “Excuse me, sir, may I see your passport?”

You have to give credit to white-collar Americans, even the seven-foot Richard Kiel cosplay US government thug in front of me: they are so polite.

The odd thing was that I haven’t reached the States yet. I haven't even boarded the plane. In fact, I am still at Heathrow and had been striding towards the check-in queue with my baggage when I was accosted.

Flicking through my passport, he stops at a page and fixes me with a steely stare. Is he going to ask what I do for a living? I hope not. I’ve heard worrisome tales of IT journalists flying out to the US for tech conventions only to be refused entry and sent home on the next flight.

Photo of Jaws from Bond movies

Passports, please!

This was pre-9/11 – a time when the pre-occupation among immigration spooks seemed to be commies and European journalists, who were indistinguishable in the eyes of the Big Country. In those days, to enter the US as a British journalist required a special visa application, which demanded that I complete a complex multipage form of trick questions, provide personal references signed by my great-great-grandparents, solve one of those cheap plastic geometric puzzles from a Christmas cracker, juggle a variety of tropical fruit while spinning plates on sticks, invent a flying car, discover a new continent and suck the Ambassador’s cock in the middle of Grosvenor Square at midnight.

The refusal would then turn up in the post six months later.

“Tell me about your Turkish connections.”

Puzzlement strikes me dumb for a few seconds, then I succumb to an involuntary smile as it dawns on me: he’s seen the visa. “Turkey is a popular holiday destination for northern Europeans,” I explain. How come he doesn’t know that? Or maybe he does. Oh, the mind-games these spooks play!

Jaws continues to check my passport for another two minutes in silence as I stand feebly at the entrance to check-in, praying that I wouldn’t begin to sweat. Suddenly my passport is returned to me and Mountain Man stands aside deferentially and wishes me an enjoyable stay in his country. So polite.

It wasn’t until I arrive at US Immigration that someone at a desk quizzes my occupation but by then I have been adequately coached by my colleagues on the plane – journalists all – to say “production manager” with confidence. The man at the desk is content with this but he does remark that there seem to be lot of production managers on my flight.

Barely five minutes after I step out of the front door of the airport, a passing policeman threatens to throw me in jail for breaching one of the 30 trillion petty and insignificant bylaws they invent in the States to inflict misery on its urban citizens. I’ll save that story for another time but suffice to say, my first experience of visiting The Land of The Free and The Shite was depressingly memorable.

Subsequent trips have passed more or less without incident, probably because I take more care in what I do, what I say, how I stand, where I choose to cross the road and even the manner in which I scratch my fucking nose, in the hope that some cop won’t use some inadvertent digression as an excuse to pop a cap in my aaaaaaaass.

Yet I have often wondered at that peculiar question...

“Tell me about your Turkish connections.”

What did he expect me to say? “My Turkish connection is a go-between with Osama bin La... Oh fiddlesticks, you caught me out, you clever man!”

Or perhaps it was to be the first of a series of questions of gathering complexity, culminating in “What are the 39 Steps?” at which point I’d be gunned down by a leather-gloved sniper hiding in the shadows at the back of the royal box.

The memory returned to me again as I read some of celebrity fugitive and NSA turncoat Edward Snowden’s quotes from the splash of interviews and speeches he gave over recent weeks. The Reg reported him as advocating ways of preventing government surveillance not just from reading computer users’ data but from discovering their “associates”. Essentially, they don’t care what we say, just who we say it to.

Speaking to The Guardian, Ed is more specific about what spooks like he used to be are after: “Nine times out of 10, you don’t care what was said on the phone call... What you care about is the metadata.” Examples of this metadata include “when you made the call, who the call was to, when it happened, how long it occurred for”.

Hence the lack of interest in my holiday to Turkey or what I intended to do with my time in the Hugh Ess of A. They just want to know who my “connections” are, after which I’m apparently free to board the plane and provide a slightly altered job title (“We don’t care if it’s not the right one, it’s all metadata, dudes!”) at the other end to smooth my reception into their country.

And this is the kind of intrusive surveillance we’re supposed to be terrified of? Unless Edward Snowden is just a diversion from what’s really happening, NSA security measures strike me as, well, a bit rubbish, to be honest.

On the other hand, I do love a bit of metadata. When you have to wade through millions of image and video media assets every day, you soon learn to master smart ways of working with it.

Sad bastard that I am, well-constructed metadata gives me a sense of professional satisfaction. I love devising sneaky Boolean and Grep searches through it. I love demonstrating the concept to non-techs using a pack of playing cards. I love telling them it means “information about information” and then nodding slowly and enigmatically.

I even love saying the word. My personal favourite it to pronounce it with a cod Geordie accent: “me’ah-day’da”. Phwoar, metadata, you’re so shagadelic! Let’s get a room!

Except this is not what I think at all. Metadata is pants. Half of it is irrelevant, the other half is misleading.

On one system I’m using, if you call up a photo of a sports car and click on "More like this", it’ll present you with pictures of bananas. Ask a computer to extract metadata from a document about cod fishing in the North Sea and it’ll generate keywords such as "spanner", "espadrille" and "buttocks".

But, as my spooky American friends will tell me, the trick is to enter good quality metadata, entered first-hand. Only then will you have an accurate handle on the subject.

Oh brilliant, I bet my NSA file is something to behold. Somewhere across the Atlantic is a computer that lists me as a slightly sweaty production manager with Turkish connections, a distressing banana fixation and a near-conviction for the reckless and wilful crossing of roads.

My mugshot is a pair of buttocks.

Alistair DabbsAlistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling IT journalism, editorial training and digital publishing. A graduate in American Studies and Politics, Alistair does not hold views about the United States that are entirely negative despite the persistent efforts of Will.I.Am: simply being able to drink in a bar all night and pay only when you leave makes the nation a bastion of civilisation, IHHO. The chocolate is still shit, though.

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