NSA Program: Vast Data Mine; Much Larger Than White House Admitted

It’s like a big cable-knit sweater that someone keeps knitting…and knitting…and knitting. The basics of the newest revelation: The NSA traced and analyzed internet and telephone communications both coming in and going out of the US by “tapping directly into some of the American telecommunication system’s main arteries,” making the volume of information surveilled without warrants much larger than the White House has acknowledged.

American telecom companies have the NSA backdoor access to “streams of domestic and international communications,” so that they might, in addition to eavesdropping, find patterns in communications that might highlight suspicious activity: “who is calling whom, how long a phone call lasts and what time of day it is made, and the origins and destinations of phone calls and e-mail messages.”

This so-called "pattern analysis" on calls within the United States would, in many circumstances, require a court warrant if the government wanted to trace who calls whom.


A former technology manager at a major telecommunications company said that since the Sept. 11 attacks, the leading companies in the industry have been storing information on calling patterns and giving it to the federal government to aid in tracking possible terrorists.

"All that data is mined with the cooperation of the government and shared with them, and since 9/11, there's been much more active involvement in that area," said the former manager, a telecommunications expert who did not want his name or that of his former company used because of concern about revealing trade secrets.

Such information often proves just as valuable to the government as eavesdropping on the calls themselves, the former manager said.

"If they get content, that's useful to them too, but the real plum is going to be the transaction data and the traffic analysis," he said. "Massive amounts of traffic analysis information - who is calling whom, who is in Osama Bin Laden's circle of family and friends - is used to identify lines of communication that are then given closer scrutiny."
Remember the ricin bust that happened in north London in 2003? The location of that bust was blocks away from the home of a close friend of mine, someone to whom I speak on a daily basis by internet and at least weekly by phone. Did communications emanating from that area or placed to that area subsequently get higher scrutiny? Were our conversations listened to? I hope our discussions of faucets and habitual recitation of Woody Allen lines provided some amusement.

To be honest, more concerning to me than being listened to is the coercion and resulting complicity of telecom companies to aid the administration in its end-run around existing surveillance laws:

Several officials said that after President Bush's order authorizing the N.S.A. program, senior government officials arranged with officials of some of the nation's largest telecommunications companies to gain access to switches that act as gateways at the borders between the United States' communications networks and international networks. The identities of the corporations involved could not be determined.

The switches are some of the main arteries for moving voice and some Internet traffic into and out of the United States, and, with the globalization of the telecommunications industry in recent years, many international-to-international calls are also routed through such American switches.

One outside expert on communications privacy who previously worked at the N.S.A. said that to exploit its technological capabilities, the American government had in the last few years been quietly encouraging the telecommunications industry to increase the amount of international traffic that is routed through American-based switches.


Historically, the American intelligence community has had close relationships with many communications and computer firms and related technical industries. But the N.S.A.'s backdoor access to major telecommunications switches on American soil with the cooperation of major corporations represents a significant expansion of the agency's operational capability, according to current and former government officials.

Phil Karn, a computer engineer and technology expert at a major West Coast telecommunications company, said access to such switches would be significant. "If the government is gaining access to the switches like this, what you're really talking about is the capability of an enormous vacuum operation to sweep up data," he said.

Coincidentally (ahem), one of the FISA court’s recent concerns has been their legal authority over calls outside the US that happen to pass through American-based telephonic switches.

"There was a lot of discussion about the switches" in conversations with the court, a Justice Department official said, referring to the gateways through which much of the communications traffic flows. "You're talking about access to such a vast amount of communications, and the question was, How do you minimize something that's on a switch that's carrying such large volumes of traffic? The court was very, very concerned about that."
No wonder the Bush administration decided to render them impotent by virtue of exclusion from the process. Can’t have a court concerned with a little thing like the law get in one’s way.

(Crossposted at Ezra's place.)

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