Obama's Secret Terrorist-Tracking System, by the Numbers
Nearly half of the people on the U.S. 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.
with so many religions, its god is an-eye-in-the-sky, an all-seeing Being who
knows your secrets.
adapted from Tom
National Security Administration
NSA Creates Citizen Data Warehouse System
"The new Citizen Data Warehouse System (CDWS) will create a
containing detailed information about each U.S.
citizen. Since the vast majority of
all U.S. 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 N.S.A. contractor.
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
N.S.A. officials 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 classified.
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.
Phone 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.
"Metadata can 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 Americans.
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 approval.
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 "U.S. 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 several documents.
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 "U.S.
persons" for up to five years online and for an additional 10 years offline for
James Risen reported from Washington and New
York. Laura Poitras, a freelance journalist, reported from Berlin.
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