October 7 – 13: “Is the fact that the US National Security Agency seems to know everything about everyone end thrillers as we know them?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5This week ITW tackles the NSA. Join ITW Members Nathaniel Kenyon, Thatcher Robinson and Raymond Khoury as they address the question on everyone’s mind: “Is the fact that the US National Security Agency seems to know everything about everyone end thrillers as we know them?”


Day_One_cover_webNate Kenyon is the bestselling, award-winning author of Day One (October 2013), about the day machines become sentient and take over New York. Day One received a starred Booklist review and raves from Library Journal and many others. He also writes Diablo III novels for Blizzard Entertainment. He is a member of the Horror Writers Association and International Thriller Writers. He lives in the Boston area. Visit him online at NateKenyon.com.

whitegingerThatcher Robinson is a full-time writer. He was previously employed as the chief operating officer of an Internet security firm that develops top-secret cyber warfare materials for the military and various government agencies. Prior to that, he was a software specialist at IBM research laboratories in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. When he’s not writing, he likes to restore classic cars and converse with his cats.

rasputinsshadowRaymond Khoury resides in London with his wife and two daughters. His books have been translated into over forty languages and, in the case of THE LAST TEMPLAR, adapted for television. For more information on the author and his books, please visit his website, and look for RASPUTIN’S SHADOW on bookstore shelves or in your favorite e-book version today.


  1. Is the fact that the US National Security Agency seems to know everything about everyone end thrillers as we know them?

    Let me explain how data collection and data mining work. Both voice and data traffic travel through centralized hubs where the NSA and other agencies set up “keyword” listeners and scanners. When a keyword like ‘Semtex’, or ‘Allah’, or ‘kill’ is picked up then the conversation or text message is copied, given a priority level based on an ever-changing set of metrics and stored for analytic review.
    To put this in perspective, they’re collecting terabytes of data daily, far more data than their analysts can sift through in years. I suspect that only the highest priority candidates ever get any review, and then not in a timely manner. This massive data collection is mostly for show.
    So the question then becomes; “Why are they collecting data at all?”
    Mass collection is only one aspect of data collection. Warrantless spying allows the NSA to perform targeted data collection too, and that’s where the real danger lies.
    Suppose the NSA targeted the one-percenters; our congressmen and elected officials, our captains of industry and banking, our movers and shakers. Most of these people have shown a penchant for sociopathic behavior, which has gotten them into the one percentile in the first place. What if the NSA were to collect all of their insider trading, illicit affairs, off-shore accounts, unreported income and criminal activities? Not since the burning of J. Edgar Hoover’s files, has an agency held the potential for influencing our government, our financial markets and our industries in such a blatant manner. The NSA could, in effect, become a shadow government.
    This isn’t a new concept. Some of you might remember The Six Days of the Condor by James Grady, which was shortened to The Three Days of the Condor for the movie. In his book, Grady’s protagonist is a CIA analyst who comes across a renegade CIA operation, a shadow government, while reading through novels where coded messages are passed. This was obviously before the government admitted to eavesdropping, though I believe the original operation called ‘carnivore’, which listened to telephone conversations, was already in place.
    In answer to the question; The NSA doesn’t know everything about everybody. The vast majority of us don’t have anything of interest worth knowing. But the NSA may know enough about certain individuals to change the course of history. Let the thrillers begin!

  2. Great opening, Thatcher! You already neatly summarized what was going to be the first part of my own post: the fact that the NSA knows everything about us doesn’t end thrillers as we know them at all, it just forces them to evolve. Details of surveillance and technology must change, but that doesn’t kill a great book, it actually opens up more possibilities–including the possibility of a more powerful and more knowledgeable bad guy.

    As you say, the ‘shadow government’ idea has been done, and done well, but new technologies take the concept to an entirely new level. The temptation to misuse such a treasure trove of data must be overwhelming, and there are any number of plots that might hinge upon a single person, a group within the NSA or even an outside baddie hacking in and using that data for treacherous purposes.

    It forces a good hero (or baddie) to be clever–and writers smarter–about how to avoid such surveillance. There are always solutions to the problem, as long as the systems themselves aren’t smarter than human beings.

    Which brings me to my last point. This is surely on my mind because my new thriller Day One hinges on this concept, but there’s another twist to take on all this–a twist that isn’t exactly new, but that is far more plausible these days. What if the very systems themselves, those that have become so sophisticated they almost run on their own, gain some kind of autonomy and consciousness?

    What if what we end up fighting against isn’t even human?

    Science fiction, most would say. But from the research I’ve done, it’s far closer than most people think.

    1. And here’s another bit to add to the NSA paranoia: they’re storing our browsing history for a full year. What happens if I google “how to make a fertilizer bomb” for a plot I’m writing? Does that get picked up by their sniffer programs? Am I tagged as possibly dangerous? Will men in black suits come knocking on my door?

      And how can I turn that into a good thriller? 🙂


  3. Interesting bits of random spam coming into this post?! Who are the time wasters who set up these things?

    I digress… and despite coming late to the party, Thatcher and Nate, I’m enjoying your comments. Thatcher, I agree: the “shadow government” idea has been done (I haven’t read the Condor novel, but loved the movie), and I think there’s still a lot of mileage in this concept for new thrillers that take into account the current technology. Your main points are exactly right: they don’t have the capacity to sift through all the keyword-flagged data. Question is, what are the algorithms they’re using to decide who gets a closer look…?

    And Nate, I had to laugh at your last sentence: I’ve often wondered if I’ve got an active file somewhere because of all the stuff I google for my books. Might be fun to have a story about exactly that, a writer who gets into trouble because of his searches… especially if we can then get Jon Voight to play the baddie (shades of Enemy of the State?).

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