A TOP-SECRET NATIONAL SECURITY AGENCY DOCUMENT, dated 2011, describes how, by “sheer luck,” an analyst was able to access the communications of top officials of Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela.

Beyond the issue of spying on a business, the document highlights a significant flaw in mass surveillance programs: how indiscriminate collection can blind rather than illuminate. It also illustrates the technical and bureaucratic ease with which NSA analysts are able to access the digital communications of certain foreign targets.

The document, provided by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, is a March 23, 2011, article in the NSA’s internal newsletter, SIDtoday. It is written by a signals development analyst who recounts how, in addition to luck, he engaged in a “ton of hard work” to discover that the NSA had obtained access to vast amounts of Petróleos de Venezuela’s internal communications, apparently without anyone at the NSA having previously noticed this surveillance “goldmine.”

That the NSA, unbeknownst to itself, was collecting sensitive communications of top Venezuelan oil officials demonstrates one of the hazards of mass surveillance: The agency collects so much communications data from around the world that it often fails to realize what it has. That is why many surveillance experts contend that mass surveillance makes it harder to detect terrorist plots as compared to an approach of targeted surveillance: An agency that collects billions of communications events daily will fail to understand the significance of what it possesses.

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