Oh, And Let's Not Forget That The NSA Tried To 'Intercept' A Ton Of Phone Calls From Egypt

from the not-just-about-us-persons dept

I know that one thing I’ve heard from a bunch of foreigners during the past few months concerning the debates over the NSA’s surveillance programs is that they don’t understand why everyone’s so focused on the issue of “US persons,” since that implies we really don’t care at all about the fact that the NSA has no restrictions at all on spying on every communication from everyone else in the world. And, that’s a valid point. Of course, if we’re focusing on just the pure flat out law-breaking by the NSA, the US persons issue is important, because they’re not allowed to do that. But, it shouldn’t minimize the fact that if you’re not a “US person” under the NSA’s definition, you’re totally fair game. And while we’ve already mentioned the whole “accidental” collection of a bunch of phone call metadata from Washington DC by the NSA, it’s worth revisiting it as well in this context. Most of the coverage has just focused on the fact that the NSA collected so much data on calls coming out of DC:

In one instance, the NSA decided that it need not report the unintended surveillance of Americans. A notable example in 2008 was the interception of a “large number” of calls placed from Washington when a programming error confused the U.S. area code 202 for 20, the international dialing code for Egypt, according to a “quality assurance” review that was not distributed to the NSA’s oversight staff.

Right, but if they did that “correctly” it would have meant info on a “large number” of calls from Egypt all would have been collected. And, given this information, it seems quite likely that once the “programming error” was “corrected” those Egyptian call info did start getting sucked up into the machine. Now, some in the US might not mind that, but I’d imagine that people in Egypt and around the globe outside of the US are probably looking at that and are not at all happy about it. The fact that an analyst can just plug in their entire country code and “intercept” calls without (it appears) any oversight (which, of course, would have caught the 202/20 error) seems ripe for massive abuse, which is unlikely to get recorded in any report.

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Comments on “Oh, And Let's Not Forget That The NSA Tried To 'Intercept' A Ton Of Phone Calls From Egypt”

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out_of_the_blue says:

Speaking of Egypt, do you think the US has armed the "Morsi supporters"?

That’s my bet, as they’re apparently armed. The military coup that tossed Morsi was NOT to US liking, because Morsi was helping the US de-stabilize Syria in prep for invasion. So it’s likely the US is trying to get another puppet back in.

Anonymous Coward says:

No, I don't really care

? that implies we really don’t care at all about the fact that the NSA has no restrictions at all on spying on every communication from everyone else in the world.

I’m not going to speak for anyone else, but in a very definite sense I am actually rather indifferent to the fact that NSA has no restrictions against spying on non-US persons outside the USA.

I might care more if other nations had restrictions against spying on US persons inside the US. I might think about reciprocating. But the sad fact is, the only restriction on all those other countries spying on us?is if we catch ’em in the act.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: No, I don't really care

That is a pretty short-sighted view to take, given the fact that the surveillance of most of western Europe is enabled by the close cooperation of the intelligence services of the respective European countries.

Imagine those agencies would actually be forced through political pressure in the wake of these scandals to go back to their original job – counterintelligence – and treat US spying as hostile and turn off all those convenient data taps – inflated numbers of foiled terrorist plots notwithstanding, that probably would have an impact on US national security.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: No, I don't really care

? enabled by the close cooperation of the intelligence services of the respective European countries.

Yes, I believe that when Airbus obtains confidential Boeing information that is with the connivance of both French and German authorities?in close cooperation.

I’m equally sure that NSA / CIA does not engage in industrial espionage on Boeing’s behalf ?well, at least on the civil aviation side? but there’s probably not a lot I can say that will ever convince some of the French and the Germans that we don’t do that. So, the disputes just get handled quietly, because no one really wants to stir up a big diplomatic fuss.

But anyhow, would you rather have me lie to you? Should I tell you that I really care? That’s the European way, I guess.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: No, I don't really care

Obviously, I would rather have you really care and can your misplaced sarcasm. The actual antagonists here are the spies (them) vs citizens (us). There is little chance of flushing out all the rot that has grown behind shrouds of secrecy all through the 20th century if we keep being willing pawns in their game of divide and conquer.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 No, I don't really care

Obviously, I would rather have you really care?

Then let me tell you what I actually care about: As a U.S. taxpayer, I am uncomfortable with the misuse of government authorities and tax dollars to gain a commercial advantage for Boeing’s civil airplane business. If we catch NSA or CIA ?or, for that matter, FBI or anyone else in government? if we catch an NSA or CIA employee converting tax dollars to Boeing’s advantage, then we will throw that ex-government employee in jail. We might even try to throw a Boeing executive in jail too, just on principle.

If push comes to shove, I would rather have NSA and CIA spend tax dollars to help the cities of Renton and Everett spy on Chicago.

At the same time, I understand that the French and Germans don’t see anything wrong with spending their taxpayer dollars to gain a commercial advantage for Airbus. There’s not a lot I can do about that difference in culture.

Anonymous Coward says:

Spying on foreigners

Spying on foreigners is not a legal problem, it’s a political problem. Not, obviously, for domestic US politics, but internationally.

US commentators are generally comfortable with NSA spying abroad — in the sort of morally-grounded “they’d do it to us if they could” arguments exemplified above. But this genre ignores the huge power differentials between nations and is indifferent to the fact that the argument is not even remotely persuasive abroad.

In the short term, non-US people and companies will take their business elsewhere (Cloud computing has already been affected) and friendly foreign governments will face internal political pressure to cease or restrict cooperation with US intelligence collection. Longer term? Who knows?

BTW, the NSA did a great job of predicting current events in Egypt! /sarcasm

Eldakka (profile) says:

Re: Spying on foreigners

Spying on foreigners is not a legal problem, it’s a political problem.

I think it’s both.

Firstly it’s a legal issue if in Egypt it is illegal to tap telephones. Then the Egyptian version of the DoJ would be within their rights, nay, it would be their duty, to issue arrest warrants against the people tapping those phones.

It becomes a political issue when the Egyptian DoJ seeks extradition of those who have warrants out for them if they are not on Egyptian soil. It becomes a matter of political will ( or won’t ) for them to see through the extradition.

Jim Anderson (profile) says:

202 Area Code?

So by accident? they collected the data for calls to and from Congress people. Also collected was the data for phones connected to the Supreme Court and administrative agencies. Not to mention the Joint Chiefs of staff and all the NGOs that have headquarters or offices in the 202 area code. Also all the people that work at all of the above entities. Also the home phone data of anyone living in DC. Including lobbying organizations and their staffs. That is an amazing self serving mistake. Udall and Wyden have said we still are seeing only the tip of the iceberg. What more is there to find out? Be afraid very afraid.

Andrew D. Todd (user link) says:

Re: 202 Area Code?--Possible Error (to: Jim Anderson, #13).

Here are the codes, pulled out of a telephone book:

International Direct Dial: (011)+Country Code, Egypt (20)+ city code, Cairo (2) + telephone number


International Operator Dial: (01)+Country Code, Egypt (20)+ City Code, Cairo (2) + telephone number


American Long Distance: 1 + Area code, Washington DC (202) + telephone number


One can see how confusion might happen. One programmer lops off the leading zero or one, on the grounds that it doesn’t contain any information, and another programmer, not knowing what the first programmer has done, interprets the number incorrectly. Bell Telephone number are a historical accretion. If one were designing them from a clean sheet of paper, one would not design them that way, but there it is. I’ve made programming mistakes like that myself, and felt completely stupid afterwards.

Shon Gale (profile) says:

The programming error is such bull! With all the tech savvy people in America, I can’t believe they used such a stupid lie. As a programmer with experience in 20 different computer languages over 32 years, I find it laughable that their search and match routine was developed in house. That routine is part of the the core, the base of programming code and it works flawlessly in every computer language. Search and Seizure we call it after the love the police in America gave us in the sixties.

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