Obama's Secret Terrorist-Tracking System, by the Numbers
Nearly half of the people on the US government's widely shared
of terrorist suspects are not connected to any known terrorist
"Complete and accurate surveillance as a means of
control is probably a practical impossibility. What is much more likely is a
loss of privacy and constant inconvenience as the wrong people gain access to information, as one
wastes time convincing the inquisitors that one is in fact innocent, or as one
struggles to untangle the errors of the errant machine." Victor
If only we could step
outside our normal way of thinking for a moment.
None of the frameworks
we normally call on to understand the
national security state capture the irrationality, genuine inanity, and
actual madness that lie at in the Heart of Darkness.
security" is, at Heart, a
proselytizing warrior religion.
National security state has
National security state has its Sacred Texts, but they are classified
and only for eyes that "need to know".
It has its
dogma and its
The national security state has its sanctified promised
land, known as "the homeland."
The national security state has
its seminaries, which we call think tanks.
The national security state is a
monotheistic faith in that it broaches no alternatives to itself.
The national security state is
Machiavellian in its view of the world.
As with so many religions, its god is
an-eye-in-the-sky, an all-seeing Being who knows your secrets.
adapted from Tom Engelhart
National Security Administration
NSA Creates Citizen Data Warehouse System
"The new Citizen Data Warehouse System (CDWS) will create a
containing detailed information about each US
citizen. Since the vast majority of
all US credit
card transactions will be fed through this new system,
the depth of
information will be unparalleled. Intelligent routing of this citizen data
the inter-connected computer systems of various federal agencies
will provide citizens
a new level of service from the federal
history of domestic surveillance
National Security Agency has been exploiting
its huge collections of data to create sophisticated graphs of some Americans'
social connections that can identify their associates, their locations at
certain times, their traveling companions and other personal information,
according to newly disclosed documents and interviews with officials.
The spy agency began allowing the analysis of phone call and e-mail
logs in November 2010 to examine Americans' networks of associations for
foreign intelligence purposes after N.S.A. officials lifted restrictions on the
practice, according to documents provided by Edward J. Snowden, the former
The policy shift was intended to help the agency
"discover and track" connections between intelligence targets overseas and
people in the US, according to an N.S.A. memorandum from January 2011. The
agency was authorized to conduct "large-scale graph analysis on very large sets
of communications metadata without having to check foreignness" of every e-mail
address, phone number or other identifier, the document said. Because of
concerns about infringing on the privacy of American citizens, the computer
analysis of such data had previously been permitted only for foreigners.
The agency can augment the communications data with material from
public, commercial and other sources, including bank codes, insurance
information, Facebook profiles, passenger manifests, voter registration rolls
and GPS location information, as well as property records and unspecified tax
data, according to the documents. They do not indicate any restrictions on the
use of such "enrichment" data, and several former senior
Obama administration officials said the
agency drew on it for both Americans and foreigners.
declined to say how many Americans have been caught up in the effort, including
people involved in no wrongdoing. The documents do not describe what has
resulted from the scrutiny, which links phone numbers and e-mails in a "contact
chain" tied directly or indirectly to a person or organization overseas that is
of foreign intelligence interest.
The new disclosures add to the
growing body of knowledge in recent months about the N.S.A.'s access to and use
of private information concerning Americans, prompting lawmakers in Washington
to call for reining in the agency and
President Obama to order an
examination of its surveillance policies. Almost everything about the
agency's operations is hidden, and the decision to revise the limits concerning
Americans was made in secret, without review by the nation's intelligence court
or any public debate. As far back as 2006, a Justice Department memo warned of
the potential for the "misuse" of such information without adequate safeguards.
An agency spokeswoman, asked about the analyses of Americans' data,
said, "All data queries must include a foreign intelligence justification,
"All of N.S.A.'s work has a foreign intelligence purpose," the
spokeswoman added. "Our activities are centered on counterterrorism,
counterproliferation and cybersecurity."
The legal underpinning of the
policy change, she said, was a 1979 Supreme Court ruling that Americans could
have no expectation of privacy about what numbers they had called. Based on
that ruling, the Justice Department and the Pentagon decided that it was
permissible to create contact chains using Americans' "metadata," which
includes the timing, location and other details of calls and e-mails, but not
their content. The agency is not required to seek warrants for the analyses
from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
declined to identify which phone and e-mail databases are used to create the
social network diagrams, and the documents provided by Mr. Snowden do not
specify them. The agency did say that the large database of Americans' domestic
phone call records, which was revealed by Mr. Snowden in June and caused
bipartisan alarm in Washington, was excluded. (N.S.A. officials have previously
acknowledged that the agency has done limited analysis in that database,
collected under provisions of the Patriot Act, exclusively for people who might
be linked to terrorism suspects.)
But the agency has multiple
collection programs and databases, the former officials said, adding that the
social networking analyses relied on both domestic and international metadata.
They spoke only on the condition of anonymity because the information was
The concerns in the US since Mr. Snowden's revelations have
largely focused on the scope of the agency's collection of the private data of
Americans and the potential for abuse. But the new documents provide a rare
window into what the N.S.A. actually does with the information it gathers. A
series of agency PowerPoint presentations and memos describe how the N.S.A. has
been able to develop software and other tools - one document cited a new
generation of programs that "revolutionize" data collection and analysis - to
unlock as many secrets about individuals as possible.
The spy agency,
led by Gen. Keith B. Alexander, an unabashed advocate for more weapons in the
hunt for information about the nation's adversaries, clearly views its
collections of metadata as one of its most powerful resources. N.S.A. analysts
can exploit that information to develop a portrait of an individual, one that
is perhaps more complete and predictive of behavior than could be obtained by
listening to phone conversations or reading e-mails, experts say.
and e-mail logs, for example, allow analysts to identify people's friends and
associates, detect where they were at a certain time, acquire clues to
religious or political affiliations, and pick up sensitive information like
regular calls to a psychiatrist's office, late-night messages to an
extramarital partner or exchanges with a fellow plotter.
be very revealing," said Orin S. Kerr, a law professor at George Washington
University. "Knowing things like the number someone just dialed or the location
of the person's cellphone is going to allow them to assemble a picture of what
someone is up to. It's the digital equivalent of tailing a suspect." The N.S.A.
had been pushing for more than a decade to obtain the rule change allowing the
analysis of Americans' phone and e-mail data. Intelligence officials had been
frustrated that they had to stop when a contact chain hit a telephone number or
e-mail address believed to be used by an American, even though it might yield
valuable intelligence primarily concerning a foreigner who was overseas,
according to documents previously disclosed by Mr. Snowden. N.S.A. officials
also wanted to employ the agency's advanced computer analysis tools to sift
through its huge databases with much greater efficiency.
The agency had
asked for the new power as early as 1999, the documents show, but had been
initially rebuffed because it was not permitted under rules of the Foreign
Intelligence Surveillance Court that were intended to protect the privacy of
A 2009 draft of an N.S.A. inspector general's report
suggests that contact chaining and analysis may have been done on Americans'
communications data under the Bush administration's program of wiretapping
without warrants, which began after the Sept. 11 attacks to detect terrorist
activities and skirted the existing laws governing electronic surveillance.
In 2006, months after the wiretapping program was disclosed by the
New York Times, the N.S.A.'s acting general
counsel wrote a letter to a senior Justice Department official, which was also
leaked by Mr. Snowden, formally asking for permission to perform the analysis
on American phone and e-mail data. A Justice Department memo to the attorney
general noted that the "misuse" of such information "could raise serious
concerns," and said the N.S.A. promised to impose safeguards, including regular
audits, on the metadata program. In 2008, the Bush administration gave its
A new policy that year,
detailed in "Defense Supplemental Procedures Governing Communications Metadata
Analysis," authorized by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Attorney General
Michael B. Mukasey, said that since the
Supreme Court had ruled that metadata was not constitutionally protected,
N.S.A. analysts could use such information "without regard to the nationality
or location of the communicants," according to an internal N.S.A. description
of the policy.
After that decision, which was previously reported by
The Guardian, the N.S.A. performed the social network graphing in a pilot
project for 1 ½ years "to great benefit," according to the 2011 memo. It
was put in place in November 2010 in "Sigint Management Directive 424" (sigint
refers to signals intelligence).
In the 2011 memo explaining the shift,
N.S.A. analysts were told that they could trace the contacts of Americans as
long as they cited a foreign intelligence justification. That could include
anything from ties to terrorism, weapons proliferation or international drug
smuggling to spying on conversations of foreign politicians, business figures
Analysts were warned to follow existing "minimization
rules," which prohibit the N.S.A. from sharing with other agencies names and
other details of Americans whose communications are collected, unless they are
necessary to understand foreign intelligence reports or there is evidence of a
crime. The agency is required to obtain a warrant from the intelligence court
to target a "US person" - a citizen or legal resident - for actual
The N.S.A. documents show that one of the main tools
used for chaining phone numbers and e-mail addresses has the code name Mainway.
It is a repository into which vast amounts of data flow daily from the agency's
fiber-optic cables, corporate partners and foreign computer networks that have
The documents show that significant amounts of information
from the US go into Mainway. An internal N.S.A. bulletin, for example, noted
that in 2011 Mainway was taking in 700 million phone records per day. In August
2011, it began receiving an additional 1.1 billion cellphone records daily from
an unnamed American service provider under Section 702 of the 2008 FISA
Amendments Act, which allows for the collection of the data of Americans if at
least one end of the communication is believed to be foreign.
overall volume of metadata collected by the N.S.A. is reflected in the agency's
secret 2013 budget request to Congress. The budget document, disclosed by Mr.
Snowden, shows that the agency is pouring money and manpower into creating a
metadata repository capable of taking in 20 billion "record events" daily and
making them available to N.S.A. analysts within 60 minutes.
spending includes support for the "Enterprise Knowledge System," which has a
$394 million multiyear budget and is designed to "rapidly discover and
correlate complex relationships and patterns across diverse data sources on a
massive scale," according to a 2008 document. The data is automatically
computed to speed queries and discover new targets for surveillance.
top-secret document titled "Better Person Centric Analysis" describes how the
agency looks for 94 "entity types," including phone numbers, e-mail addresses
and IP addresses. In addition, the N.S.A. correlates 164 "relationship types"
to build social networks and what the agency calls "community of interest"
profiles, using queries like "travelsWith, hasFather, sentForumMessage,
A 2009 PowerPoint presentation provided more examples of data
sources available in the "enrichment" process, including location-based
services like GPS and TomTom, online social networks, billing records and bank
codes for transactions in the US and overseas.
At a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Thursday,
General Alexander was asked if the agency ever collected or planned to collect
bulk records about Americans' locations based on cellphone tower data. He
replied that it was not doing so as part of the call log program authorized by
the Patriot Act, but
said a fuller response would be classified.
If the N.S.A. does not
immediately use the phone and e-mail logging data of an American, it can be
stored for later use, at least under certain circumstances, according to
One 2011 memo, for example, said that after a court
ruling narrowed the scope of the agency's collection, the data in question was
"being buffered for possible ingest" later. A year earlier, an internal
briefing paper from the N.S.A. Office of Legal Counsel showed that the agency
was allowed to collect and retain raw traffic, which includes both metadata and
content, about "US persons" for up to five years online and for an additional
10 years offline for "historical searches."
James Risen reported from
Washington and New York. Laura Poitras, a freelance journalist, reported from
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