Thursday, May 11, 2006

NSA has been tracking US calls

Of course this means many are going to freak out and go crying to the ACLU to save them from the big bad government of that eeeeevil Chimpeachment Mcdeathitlenronbu$hOILiniburton, the unelected Chimperial pResident of the United Hates of SurveillazionaziKKKa also known as Dubya.

USA Today - The National Security Agency has been secretly collecting the phone call records of tens of millions of Americans, using data provided by AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth, people with direct knowledge of the arrangement told USA TODAY.

The NSA program reaches into homes and businesses across the nation by amassing information about the calls of ordinary Americans — most of whom aren't suspected of any crime. This program does not involve the NSA listening to or recording conversations. But the spy agency is using the data to analyze calling patterns in an effort to detect terrorist activity, sources said in separate interviews.

Now if you take the hysterical hyperbole out of those two paragraphs you get the meat and potatoes of the article, that the NSA has these huge computers compiling the phone numbers of calls placed and received looking for call patterns. That's it. They don't have thousands of analysts watching the phone calls made by Americans, or even listening to the calls between Americans. They aren't even getting personal information from the phone companies; no names or addresses, just numbers. You can take my word for it or you can read the rest of the article

[...] In defending the previously disclosed program, Bush insisted that the NSA was focused exclusively on international calls. "In other words," Bush explained, "one end of the communication must be outside the United States."

As a result, domestic call records — those of calls that originate and terminate within U.S. borders — were believed to be private.

Sources, however, say that is not the case. With access to records of billions of domestic calls, the NSA has gained a secret window into the communications habits of millions of Americans. Customers' names, street addresses and other personal information are not being handed over as part of NSA's domestic program, the sources said. But the phone numbers the NSA collects can easily be cross-checked with other databases to obtain that information.

[...] The chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., would not confirm the existence of the program. In a statement, he said, "I can say generally, however, that our subcommittee has been fully briefed on all aspects of the Terrorist Surveillance Program. ... I remain convinced that the program authorized by the president is lawful and absolutely necessary to protect this nation from future attacks."

Again, gross mischaracterization aside that these two facets of the Terrorist Surveillance Program are the same (I think most of us can see the difference between the NSA eavesdropping on a handful of international phone calls and not eavesdropping on domestic calls) we see that customer personal info IS NOT BEING GIVEN TO THE NSA. The article tries to make a big deal that the NSA could easily cross check the numbers to get that info. Two things here... One, is duh. Police and FBI get that information all the time in the process of conducting a standard investigation. And two, they get a warrant. You'll notice that the article conveniently leaves that nugget of information out of the article, because not saying anything about a warrant implies they don't get it, and that sounds a lot worse.

Oh and that the appropriate Congressional Committees were consulted again gets buried at the end of the article. In some 50-odd paragraphs, Sen. Pat Robert's comment on the program get stuck in about the 40th paragraph because that's not essential information. Or, more likely, it hurts the intended affect of the article, damning the Bush administration.

UPDATE 1 @ 2:21pm: PowerLine weighs in with two quick points.

One, as A.J. Strata points out, the USA Today article identified Qwest as the one major carrier that declined the NSA's request for cooperation. Presumably Qwest has now become the terrorists' telecom company of choice. Way to go, USA Today!

Two, it's obvious that what the NSA does with this vast amount of data is to run it through computers, looking for suspicious patterns, especially involving known or suspected terrorist phone numbers. I did a quick calculation: assuming that there are 200 million adult Americans, each of whom places or receives ten phone calls a day (a conservative estimate, I think), it would require a small army of 35,000 full-time NSA employees to pay a total of one second of attention to each call. In other words, lighten up: the NSA obviously isn't tracking your phone calls with your friends and relatives.

Yep. Leave it to the press to lend the terrorists a helping hand. The only thing else they could've done to help was actually hand a terrorist a cell phone with Qwest as a provider. He also points to this story that the British subway bombers placed calls to Pakistan just before striking. Might be nice to have some sort of plan in place to track phone calls looking for suspicious patterns of calls to, say, Pakistan. Maybe even listen in on a suspicious international call...

Might be nice if such a program existed...

UPDATE 2 @ 4:50pm: In from the Cold gives us some more detail about how "Links and Nodes Analysis" works.

Here's how the program works, according to media accounts. After 9-11, the NSA entered into a partnership with many of the nation's largest phone companies, including Verizon and Bell South. The companies provided information on calling patterns from millions of phone accounts; which numbers were called, how long the calls lasted, and the number of times a specific number was called from a certain phone. The effort did not include the actual monitoring of conversations by the NSA.

[...] Undeterred, Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania (who must believe that there's a secret wiretap on every phone) is already promising hearings on the matter. Another Republican, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, openly wondered how "collecting phone numbers" fits in with "finding the enemies." Give me a break.

The data mining operation fits in quite well, Senator. To win the war on terror, we need to track down the bad guys. They talk on telephones, and sometimes place multiple calls to the same number. Using that data, we can identify links and nodes in the terrorist world, allowing us to better direct our surveillance efforts, and eventually, neutralize that cell. If a number in, say, Pakistan is getting a lot of traffic from the U.S., why not monitor that number? The calls may be completely innocent, but they might provide a harbinger of planned terrorist attacks. This program is only a "threat" to Americans with Osama on their speed dial, or Zawahiri in their "friends and family" calling circle.

I guess I better stop calling Zawahiri with all the American Idol updates he keeps bugging me for... Man was he pissed Chris got booted...