Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Why I don't worry about the NSA

Yesterday was a museum day for me. I spent a good chunk of it doing data entry in PastPerfect, but when I'd get up to stretch I did the usual digging around in filing cabinets and other spaces as I slowly figure out just what all we have. I'm a volunteer and only go in one or two days a week for a few hours at time so my efforts at cataloging and organizing are not moving particularly fast. Well, one of yesterday's discoveries was a box of 5-1/2 inch floppy disks. They were all neatly labeled and appear to have some interesting material stored on them: family trees, notes on local history, etc. There must be a couple dozen. Depressing.

Why is it depressing? Well, among other things, when was the last time you saw a 5-1/2 disk drive on a computer? Unless someone took the time to print out hard copies of whatever is on those disks, that work is gone forever. Not only are 5-1/2 inch drives a historical curiosity, odds are that whatever program was used at the time no longer matches up with its many generations later descendant. When the disk drives evolved from 5-1/2 inch to 3 to compact disk, I transferred various files. Not long ago I tried looking at some of the stuff I wrote 25 years ago, back in the days of WordPerfect 4.2. I had the latest version of WordPerfect, but it could no longer open files written in the multiple generations earlier version. The same thing happens with files done in early versions of Word.

Long, long ago, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth (the early '80s), I worked at a daily newspaper that used a Compugraphic typesetting system. The files were stored on 8-inch floppies. I wonder if there's a machine left on the planet that can read those disks now. Probably not.

And this is why I don't worry about the NSA or other government snooping a whole lot. As a society we tend to live in the Now with no thought of past or future. The guys working for the NSA are every bit as inculcated with that mindset as the rest of us. I think we can take it as a given that they're going to be just as gung ho as everyone else when it comes to constantly updating and getting the latest version of their various spyware programs and data storage systems, possibly more. After all, it's the techno-geeks who always want the latest version of anything. Back when the government spies were typing out transcripts of conversations and filling file boxes with hard copies, information would live forever -- or at least until silverfish and roaches got into the boxes and ate the paper. Well, information may still live forever, lurking in some NSA "cloud" (aka server farm in Utah), but I'm willing to bet that the more time that elapses, the less retrievable that information will be. Some programmer will have a bright idea, she'll tweak a couple lines of code, and decades of snooping will disappear behind a software wall. And, yes, the data will still be there and theoretically retrievable but will anyone bother? If you run a query and get a null result, how would you know that the null result is an artifact of the software and not an actual reliable answer?

So what happened to the 5-1/2 inch disks I found? The circular file, of course. Technology has moved on; the disks aren't usable. I kept a couple as artifacts to include in a display at some point in the future, but most got tossed. I felt the usual twinge of guilt about throwing away someone's hard work, but you can't win them all.

It was, however, a nice reminder that I need to periodically do hard copy reports of the data I've entered in PastPerfect. If we're going to have an inventory, it needs to be in an old-fashioned paper-filled notebook as well as on the computer.


  1. I just read. I have a gadget that opens floppies and you can read. I saved my floppies just because of it. I have a bunch too. Barb

  2. These days you can store everything on the internut. I have a bunch of old disks to toss...

    Anyone using a Chrome browser apparently can't visit Ray's blog because of some malware on it, I mentioned that to him a while back but now it is restricted.

  3. There are likely companies that can read your files for you even on the old disks.
    And don't forget that the NSA stuff is on big computers, not consumer models that change every two years. Hardware and software may be updated but... I am sure that the tapes from giant old old IBMs that I wrote Mickey Mouse programs on in the Late 60s as a student, can still be read.
    When they want you they will come and get you.

  4. Billy, that's weird about the S.O.'s blog. I've never had a problem visiting it from computers outside our own. I'll mention it to him. We supposedly have a good virus/malware/whatever protection progam so I'm surprised something slipped past it.

    As for old files, I figure that if something hasn't been considered important enough to look at for a decade or two, why bother?

    When it comes to the NSA and the government in general, I figure what protects us all is their sheer incompetence. The people who actually know what they're doing tend to get shuffled into corners or stashed in dead end jobs while the stunningly stupid keep getting promoted. It's why I scoff at conspiracy theories -- no one in a position of actual power is smart enough (or ambitious enough) to do a decent job of plotting anything.


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