Newly Leaked NSA Slides On PRISM Add To Confusion, Rather Than Clear It Up

from the hmmm dept

Over the weekend there were two “big” new leaks from the documents that Ed Snowden took. The first, about US spying on EU embassies we already covered. The second one seemed bigger, but it also might have just made things murkier. It involves the Washington Post releasing four more slides about the PRISM program from that original slide deck that already had 5 of its 41 slides revealed in previous leaks. These slides show a lot more details about PRISM. What’s amazing is that I’ve seen people claiming completely contrary things in looking over these slides: some are insisting it shows that the companies who are “members” of PRISM don’t — as was originally reported — open up their servers to the NSA. Others insist that the slides actually support that original reporting and show that the companies are lying.

First up, here are the slides (sorry visitors from the Defense Department):

Things break down when people start to analyze these slides. A few news sources have zeroed in on the claim on that last slide that there are 117,675 “records” in PRISM as of April 5th. But, there’s some disagreement about what the hell that means. The Washington Post says that these are “active surveillance targets” but it’s unclear how they know that. It’s possible that there’s other, as yet unrevealed info that would support that, but even then there’s confusion. How “active” is active? And, what constitutes a “record” anyway? No one seems to be providing any answers.

Another thing that’s not entirely clear: the Washington Post annotations claim that the “FBI DITU,” the “Data Intercept Technology Unit” (DITU), is on the premises of the companies listed as a part of PRISM — but all of the companies have pretty strenuously denied this. And, honestly, from the slides, it’s not at all clear that the DITU really is on-premises. Google has said in the past that when it receives a valid FISA court order under the associated program, it uses secure FTP to ship the info to the government. From that, it seems like the “DITU” could just be a government computer somewhere, not on the premises of these companies, and info is uploaded to those servers following valid FISC orders.

Others have focused in on the claims of “real-time surveillance,” implying the ability to watch actual key strokes, but the slide in question (the third one above) suggests something slightly different: which is real time notifications for certain trigger events, such as logging into email or sending a message. Now, it does note that other forms of communication are available through the program, but it’s not at all clear that’s “real time.” It’s also not at all clear if the “real time” notifications apply to all companies in the program. It’s entirely possible that a FISC order might require these companies to let the FBI/NSA know whenever a certain target logged into their email or chat. There are certainly some questions raised there about the appropriateness of that type of program, but it’s not clear how much “real time” info is actually being sent.

It’s entirely possible that the Washington Post’s interpretation of these slides is accurate. It’s also entirely possible that the other slides, or additional reporting from WaPo reporters allows them to have more knowledge on these things, and it could be true that the companies in questions are not being fully truthful. However, especially given how it appears that the WaPo’s original reporting on PRISM was fairly sloppy, it seems worth reserving judgment until more information comes out.

Of course, if (as the NSA insists) this program is nothing more than these companies responding to valid FISC orders, I don’t see why the NSA itself can’t be a hell of a lot more transparent about these programs. If there’s real oversight over these programs and they’re really only used against actual threats (stop laughing…), then nothing revealed so far seems like it should be secret. It just shows how the system works for delivering the information that is legally required. The fact that there’s so much secrecy over the program suggests either a stupid overclassification insistence by the NSA, or that there’s a hell of a lot beyond this that they don’t want to talk about (such as revealing that the program isn’t what they claim). That seems like the most likely situation given what’s been revealed so far.

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Comments on “Newly Leaked NSA Slides On PRISM Add To Confusion, Rather Than Clear It Up”

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50 Comments
Max O says:

Re: What they are doing

is monitoring political groups — and congressmen, Supreme Court justices, reporters (like Michael Hastings), and a whole bunch of lawyers. Why? Well, for blackmail of course. Surely you don’t think they’d build such a big and creepy system and not use it for the obvious purposes!

But don’t take my word for it. Listen to the most blacked-out of all the NSA whistleblowers, former analyst Russell Tice. He’s had a whole string of corporate media appearances cancelled lately, but he goes into some detail in interviews on the Boiling Frogs Show and the Corbett Report.

Anonymous Coward says:

if the spying hadn’t have happened, wasn’t happening and wasn’t going to happen, there would be no confusion at all, would there! if the government wasn’t using the ‘threat of terrorist attacks’ as a reason to implement all this spying, there would be no confusion at all, would there! if the government wasn’t more interested in watching what it’s own citizens were doing and actually concentrated on trying to stop real terrorist attacks, there would be no confusion at all, would there! if the government wasn’t concentrating on spying on it’s own citizens, because it is much easier to do that than actually get spying up and running on people that should have tabs kept on them, there would be no confusion at all, would there! and all this implementing of new laws etc to aid the entertainment industries to watch on who is doing what, where, with whom and with what, at what times, etc, etc is another smoke screen! it’s there so the government can use the information gleaned for their purposes as well as enable the industries to find others to sue for copyright infringement and file sharing. no industry is going to keep throwing millions into stopping something unstoppable, when to change tack, do the alternative means being able to make money is there, unless there is a very big reason!! like being funded by the government, perhaps, so as to get these spying operations going??

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

yes, stupid NSA for not allowing consistent documentation to be stolen (taken) by Snowden. Of course you would rather less information, that way you can make up shit to fill the gaps.

Why not ask why documents from the same source, are inconsistent with each other ? How dare they support what the companies involved have publicly stated. How dare they show they may (probably) NOT breaking the law!!

It’s clear you need an experienced intelligence analysis to analyse this data for you, I believe Snowden is looking for new job. On seconds thoughts you might be looking for someone experienced. Not a low level computer tech.

Anonymous Coward says:

It's taking time

But it at least appears that slowly, over time you are drawing the same conclusions as many others have drawn, and are beginning to question the veracity if the ‘so called’ leaked documents. It is all very broad, and clearly if anything is ‘low level’ intelligence.

Of course, if (as the NSA insists) this program is nothing more than these companies responding to valid FISC orders, I don’t see why the NSA itself can’t be a hell of a lot more transparent about these programs.

So you are wondering why groups like the NSA are being secretive ? Really ??

Do you honestly find it odd that the NSA would not be ‘transparent’ for some reason !! I guess you want to petition to Government to change the name of the Secret service to ‘the public service’, if that name was not already taken !

I also like how if a company says something publicly that does not fit into your world view, they are lying. And that documents that show something different to your pre-defined biases have not been interpreted correctly. Or if you don’t have all the information, you will just make stuff up to fill the gaps.

Josh in CharlotteNC (profile) says:

Re: It's taking time

But it at least appears that slowly, over time you are drawing the same conclusions as many others have drawn, and are beginning to question the veracity if the ‘so called’ leaked documents. It is all very broad, and clearly if anything is ‘low level’ intelligence.

You seem confused. You’re trying to say that they’re faked, yet your next sentence you accept that they’re real and say they’re unimportant.

No one but you is questioning that these are actual NSA documents. They are not faked – if they were, then Snowden isn’t guilty of doing anything illegal enough to cause a global manhunt and diplomatic fallout between countries. The questioning is that these documents are not internally consistent, nor are they consistent with the information stated publicly by NSA officials or with information from the tech companies. What this means is that there is a desperate need for real oversight and transparency – because the picture as to what communications are being illegally captured is very murky.

Anonymous Coward says:

The first slide

Notice this box:

Special FISA Oversight and Processing) SV4

It’s one of the two BIG boxes right at the top.

Has anyone wondered what this means ??

Research & Validation NO USPERs

NO US PERs, does anyone know what is particular to the US that would warrant a bit, and in caps a NO as a note ????

I would guess that has something to do with not being allowed to do something to people IN THE US !

There also appears to be quite a large number of Reviews/Validation steps required, does not at all look like a vacuuming up of non-targeted information. It appears to be very selective, with special rules in relation to US Citizens. Does not look like wholesale data gathering at all

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: The first slide

that only seems to cover the “stored comms” bit, and not “surveillance” so you got half of it right, but apparently theresthere’s nothing stopping them on that first slide from surveillance, just “stored comms”, from USPERS.

I’ll leave it to the solar panel engineer to explain why he isn’t worried they aren’t spying on him in australia. Since they’ve made it clear they don’t spy on Americans, only foreigners.

DW says:

Re: The first slide

What’s more telling about it is that it is one of two branches leading to the same box DITU. Pending Stored Comms and Surveillance.

If you read the slide correctly you will see that the NO USERs clause is only invoked at that one step, and not the others. That means EVERYTHING is potentially surveilled but STORED COMMS can only be retrieved after checking for NO USERs.

If the FISA court doesn’t care about what it gives warrants for (which appears to be the case) the other levels could quite easily ask for everything in this arrangement.

DW says:

Re: The first slide

What’s more: Everything does go into DITU, note the direct arrow.

That means that anyone who might not want to bother with the upper layers (say, a disgruntled contractor or perhaps a “secret agent”, haha) has access to everything.

According to this slide the ONLY thing with any oversight is “Pending stored comms”.

aldestrawk says:

Re: Re: The first slide

The first slide describes bureaucratic relationships. It is not a data flow chart and is rather sloppy about what arrows mean. It seems to use arrows to describe; data flow, the next sequence in a process, or, in the case of “pending stored comms” and “surveillance”, as a kind of label providing more information about another arrow. It doesn’t make any sense to consider “pending stored comms” as an input to anything. The diagram only adds to confusion because of this sloppiness.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: The first slide NO USPERs

firstly it’s not a flow chart, it’s more an org chart, you also see “target selection/VALIDATION a lot, on many boxes, you see specific references to “NO US Persons” indicating compliance with your constitution, so right at the start with FISA validation to the end with “No US PERSONS”, seems like these documents support what the affected companies have been stating, and what NSA have been stating, and what is in the legislation, all public knowledge.

Second, you would probably not get too much shit in a urinal, therefore not too much shit tainted water. Unless you do not understand how a toilet works !!

If it was a flow chart, it’s position would be irrelevant, at the start or the finish does not make any difference to the process and it’s function.

Like it or not (and it’s clear you don’t) these documents only go towards supporting NSA claims as factual, and only weakens Snowden’s position and reliability.

aldestrawk says:

Re: Re: Re:2 The first slide NO USPERs

From descriptions of other programs that the government has to investigate terrorism, one just doesn’t investigate the prime target but those who have connections to the prime target. The prime target must be a foreigner but does that mean PRISM doesn’t collect data on U.S. citizens who are only connected to the prime target? If the foreign terrorist suspect emails a U.S. citizen do they not collect the content of that email? Do they not collect the content of a reply to that email? Do they not collect the content of any email sent to that foreign suspect? My understanding is that investigations usually pursue connections out to two degrees of separation from the initial target. The NSA or Obama administration needs to be honest in clarifying this. Do you really think that a U.S. citizen, thus implicated, won’t have their email content monitored via PRISM?
Maybe it’s true. No American has their emails read via the “pending stored comms” branch of this chart. At least until they have been stored for 180 days, then it’s open season as an NSL can be used to read these old emails sitting on a server. A very important question to ask is can email content for emails less than 180 days old be read via the “surveillance” branch of this chart. Does the secret interpretation of FISA/FAA allow this?
Additionally, what is meant by “stored comms”? The second new slide describing content type only lists “search” which I assume means browser search terms used by the target. Other content collectable via PRISM (e.g. basic subscriber information)could be collected via a NSL but the chart does not indicate that. I don’t see these new slides as being anywhere near supporting NSA claims that no information on Americans is stored via PRISM.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: The first slide

I don’t care if we have surveillance of this type or not, I don’t make any phone calls, or any communications that I would have issues with regarding my privacy or activities.

You might, but most cannot see it as a problem, most (rightly) simply cant see what you are worried about, what is it you are actually shocked about, it’s not like this have been a massive secret, it’s been well know for years.

I expect my Government is conducting levels of surveillance, in fact I KNOW they are, it’s just I don’t care.

Even if they do after great effort find out what type of pizza I ordered last Friday night, I don’t think that information will be of great value to them. (unless they decide to buy me a free one!)

Who are you spending your days talking too that you think might draw attention to you ?? your girlfriend ?? (sorry if you don’t have one)..

Talk about paranoid.. real tin-hat stuff.

DCX2 says:

Re: The first slide

They determine whether the individual stored comm in question belongs to a US Person or not after vacuuming it up.

For evidence: note that “Research & Validate NO USPERs” comes after PRINTAURA. Note second slide, PRINTAURA is inside the NSA bubble.

NSA is sucking all the data up wholesale, passing it off to FBI for analysis, before it comes back to NSA. This is because FBI handles domestic stuff.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: The first slide

“They determine whether the individual stored comm in question belongs to a US Person or not after vacuuming it up.”

That’s because without looking at the meta-data they cannot tell, but once they do get that information that box clearly filters out all US Persons.

It’s the nature of intelligence gathering, you have to gather more than you need, as you probably do not know what you need until you have it. I know you will find that hard to understand, but if you think about it, it does make sense.

It’s the same if a crime is reported to police, they have to start somewhere, so initially everyone is a suspect, they may do considerable investigation on a suspect only to find he is innocent, but they could not determine if he is innocent until first at least assuming he was guilty. They assume all the ‘suspects’ are (or could be guilty) and by the process of elimination narrow down the search the better suspects and even the guilty person.

But at first you don’t know who is guilty of the crime and who is not, you have to get information on all those people and conduct an investigation.

Josh in CharlotteNC (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: The first slide

It’s the same if a crime is reported to police, they have to start somewhere, so initially everyone is a suspect,

That isn’t how investigations are started.

I’ll refer you to every public statement where a police spokesperson says “We have no suspects at this time.”

They say that, not something like “All 7 billion people on the planet are suspects.”

out_of_the_blue says:

Limited hangout now into full "Well, maybe it's okay..."

As predicted by me, this “leak” just keeps getting squishier and so becoming more clearly to actual benefit of NSA — and its corporate fronts. They’ve put it out solely to get the public to accept the current and be ready for new levels of intrusive spying — like Google Glass — and now even people with backpacks on hiking trails!

In fact, regardless whether we can pin down exactly how the spying works, it’s by far the most invasive and comprehensive in history. Former East German Stasi marvel at it. And it’s only going to get worse.

What’s funny is how Mike doesn’t embrace this “disruptive” technology, as he did/does with Streetview besides Google’s everyday storage of on-line activities and rooting through email. Maybe because sees it intruding into HIS privacy. Pretty soon he’ll be into full cranky geezer mode, but at this level: “Get your spy cam outta my bathroom!”

lfroen (profile) says:

Re: Limited hangout now into full "Well, maybe it's okay..."

I’m curious – does somebody paying for this shit? I understand that US is big country and all kind of nutcases can be found there, but I never actually met one.
Until now. What’s that obsession with Google? Yea, we already know that they’re bad, violating privacy and all that. But – did they hurt you somehow? Someone from Google dumped/beaten/cheated you?

Another possibility is that “out_of_the_blue” is several people, each spewing its own nonsense: “Google is bad”, “Rich people are evil”, “Internet grifters” and so on. They probably doing it for money.

Also possible, (however less probable) that this guy(s) know(s) Mike personally. So he just post opposite opinion, no matter what is the topic.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Limited hangout now into full "Well, maybe it's okay..."

The only agenda seems to be “anti tech-dirt” But I honestly don’t see anything out of tech dirt that could be considered radical enough to generate such a response.

Either it’s a complete wacko, a plant by the Tech-Dirt team since trollings seems to generate some fun in the comments sections, or someone with an insane personal vendetta.

The Real Michael says:

Perhaps the Snowden leaks were intentional on the part of either the NSA or CIA as an unofficial, off-handed way of letting the public know that they’re being monitored. It’s also possible that this is an attempt to give the false illusion to the public and foreign entities that the NSA is capable of much more data-harvesting than it actually can. Of course this is speculation on my part.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

There are so many parts of this story that are just surreal, almost Hollywoodesque type “facts” that are just mind boggling.

For example, how did they NOT know about the Boston Bombings? How come it took so long to get the information about the guys? Isn’t that what this system is supposed to be for? Why wasn’t it used IN AN ACTUAL TERRORIST ATTACK?

Anonymous….how did these guys NOT know about any of this? How was this NOT mentioned in any of the ‘break-ins’? or found along the way?

How did any system admin NOT NOTICE this? (I figured it out something was going on a few years back when I had an oddball spam email that took some interesting hops on it’s way to us. 2 of those hops were through IP addresses assigned to the DoD…one inside the US and one in England.)

I’m still shocked that there seems to be only 2 pictures of Snowden, in this day an age. It just seems strange to me how controlled this whole story is.

I’m glad I’m almost retirement age. I hate where the IT world has gone. Bastardized it just for a buck. Makes me sick.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: And its all Content not just Meta data

No kidding.
http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2012/03/ff_nsadatacenter/all/1
“As a result of this ?expanding array of theater airborne and other sensor networks,? as a 2007 Department of Defense report puts it, the Pentagon is attempting to expand its worldwide communications network, known as the Global Information Grid, to handle yottabytes (1024 bytes) of data. (A yottabyte is a septillion bytes?so large that no one has yet coined a term for the next higher magnitude.)”

Or to put it another way:
One yottabyte is 100TB of data for each man, woman and child on the planet.
Anyone really thinks all this storage capacity is needed for ‘meta data’?
In the leaked paper it says that the NSA are collecting VOIP, pictures, video etc, on a massive scale. The size of their new storage facility suggests this to be absolutely correct.

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: And its all Content not just Meta data

these slides certainly do not mention the ‘oh but its just meta data’.

Unfortunately, you’re confusing the two different programs that have been leaked. PRISM was NEVER about “just metadata” and no one ever claimed it. The Section 215 “business records” program — from companies like Verizon and AT&T — is the “just metadata” program.

Everyone’s admitted from the beginning that PRISM was about actual contents, just subject to FISC review.

I think this is almost part of the problem of having so many of these things leak at once. It’s easy to confuse the different programs.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: And its all Content not just Meta data

Interesting concept here. Notice that VOIP contents are included. Technically VOIP traffic is just “data” even though they really are phone conversations. That determination was initially made by Congress years ago when VOIP was new because Congress wanted to let the new industry flourish without being bogged down in the regulatory nightmare that is Telecommunication regulations. However, when the President says “we aren’t listening to your phone conversations” if you are talking on a VOIP line or to someone on a VOIP line, that is simply not true.

Anonymous Coward says:

DITU "on premises"

Just as international airports may have a “transit area” that “isn’t in the country” while the airport itself obviously is in-country (re. Mr. Snowden’s alleged situation), the on-premise location of a DITU is likely considered “not on premise” even though it clearly is.

The “room” where a DITU may be located could have its own secure entrance that only cleared personnel can enter (from ouside; never “entering” the company bldg); and both the company and the NSA probably consider that entry and connected “room” to be “outside” of the company.

Thus both sides may be telling the “truth” about it (i.e.; the least untruthful response).

Jaqenn says:

Apple is special?

When you look at slide #3, where they do a diagram of PRISM Case Labels, the first two characters represent the Data Provider:

P1 = Microsoft
P2 = Yahoo
P3 = Google
.
.
.
P8 = AOL
PA = Apple

Wait, ‘PA’? Why why why is it not ‘P9’? Did someone at the NSA say ‘Oh, well Apple is clearly more memorable than Microsoft (PM?) or Google (PG?)’ Or maybe Apple demanded that their brand identity not be reduced to a NUMBER in return for their assistance?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Apple is special?

Wait, ‘PA’? Why why why is it not ‘P9’? Did someone at the NSA say ‘Oh, well Apple is clearly more memorable than Microsoft (PM?) or Google (PG?)’ Or maybe Apple demanded that their brand identity not be reduced to a NUMBER in return for their assistance?

It is likely that there was already a P9, which was removed because it was no longer relevant or went out of business. This looks like normal programming code when it comes to a list of variables with small and obfuscated variable names (and one that programmers who actually work in the business actually try to avoid, because it is extremely difficult to keep them all in your head and troubleshoot later.)

Being government, and a bureaucracy, they choose a very small field to contain all possible values, and then when one value is no longer necessary, they drop it without resorting the list.

ECA (profile) says:

Dont care, This is to hard to do it properly

For example.
Doing this FROM a remote location that is NOT an intersection of server groups, is MONSTROUS.
It would take a Dedicated LOCAL box watching xx servers at a time, looking for readable text(how many languages?), Voice(how many Languages?), Raw data??, encrypted data?..

I could see them doing SCANS of random data, having is shunted to the BASE/main servers, but Still its alot of data.

I have to suggest that Im from the OLD SCHOOL, where many things had to be Manually done, even on the internet.
AND DOS is an alternative even NOW.
Many people here, i dont think, have much knowledge of the Fun tricks that can be done on the net.(this AINT WINDOWS type of world) Your computer can communicate on over 65000 channels, and MANY MANY more ports for input output threw the net.

For all the data that CAN be sent from 1 computer, to Scan each port going threw a server system, to ‘sample’ the data, and Diagnose/tag/decrypt the data to place a value on it, and SEND out remotely to another system to be evaluated. Even looking for specific anomalies..
Example:
Patient: iv got a cough..
Doctor: Starts at the toes and scans the WHOLE BODY to find the cough.

Unless you have an IDEA of where to look, you wont start in the right area.

Anonymous Coward says:

A Better Infographic

I don’t understand why this graphic/story isn’t showing up in more places:

http://apps.washingtonpost.com/g/page/national/inner-workings-of-a-top-secret-spy-program/282/

I think its a much better interpretation and picture of whats going on. I think the reason the big companies have come out and said “there are no NSA computers in our data centers” is because there are FBI computers instead.

Anonymous Coward says:

WP gives a bit more info on secret codenames

PRINTAURA automates the traffic flow. SCISSORS and Protocol Exploitation sort data types for analysis in NUCLEON (voice), PINWALE (video), MAINWAY (call records) and MARINA (Internet records).

The systems identified as FALLOUT and CONVEYANCE appear to be a final layer of filtering to reduce the intake of information about Americans.

aldestrawk says:

Re: WP gives a bit more info on secret codenames

“automates traffic flow” is really a hand waving vagueness that doesn’t explain anything. It is meaningless.

What I believe PRINTAURA means comes from S3532. this is a section of USC. 44 which deals with public printing and documents that are created by the government. Section 3532 deals with definitions relating to security. I believe Printaura is a device or step that effects security details such as authentication. What is not clear is if this only applies to those who access PRISM to control the targets and filters or it also applies to protecting the collection data stream as it is directed to the NSA cloud.

aldestrawk says:

number of active targets

“The Washington Post says that these are “active surveillance targets” but it’s unclear how they know that.”

It would make sense that the 117,675 “records” in PRISM refers to cases that are assigned “case notations” as described in the previous slide. My reading of this is that for a particular target, whether that is just an individual, a group, or individuals with “connections” to the stated target out to 2 degrees of separation (which is apparently the standard for terrorism investigations), there is a case number generated for each data source (i.e. Yahoo, Facebook etc.) for a specific calendar year. A new case number would have to be generated for each year the target is being actively monitored.

Active entries is certainly a misnomer. A target may no longer be actively monitored but it would not make sense to delete existing information from the PRISM database based on that. I suppose the NSA/CIA/FBI might agree to delete information about a particular target that they no longer considered suspicious. I would expect that deletion rate to match that of removing individuals from the “No Fly List”.

Note that the maximum number of records/per source/per year is 10 million. They would obviously over provision that so the maximum would never be reached, but still, that’s a disturbingly large number.

aldestrawk says:

Re: number of active targets

Upon re-reading the slides I am changing my analysis. The year in the case number is not the year in which monitoring occurs but the year in which it is first established. In that case, active may truly mean active. This would assume though that the database(s) that ultimately store this data are not primarily indexed via the PRISM case number. Given that assumption, once a target is no longer being actively monitored the PRISM case number could be retired.

PRISM records may simply be – a description of the surveillance target, both general target and the specific person involved.
– Specifies a particular source (e.g. Google).
– specifies the list of services being monitored (i.e. content type).
– Specifies the database(s) the collected information will end up in (i.e. CIA/FBI/NSA). Additionally, for the NSA, at least, there are separate storage databases for metadata, voice content, and videos.
– May specify the legal justification for monitoring the target.
– Specifies the year in which monitoring started.

The final slide appears to be of a web page that instructs personnel in how to use PRISM. The reader is warned to seek help if the current number of active entries is much less than the number of active entries as of April 5, 2013 (117,675). That may mean active cases are not retired very often, but it depends how often this instructional web page is updated.

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