NSA Has Capability To Record And Store ALL Foreign Phone Calls In Certain Countries
from the collect-it-all! dept
The latest scoop from Barton Gellman, reporting for the Washington Post on documents Ed Snowden leaked, highlights an NSA program known as MYSTIC, with some snazzy clipart… and the ability to retrieve all recordings of phone calls in certain (non-US) countries going back at least 30 days.
In the initial deployment, collection systems are recording “every single” conversation nationwide, storing billions of them in a 30-day rolling buffer that clears the oldest calls as new ones arrive, according to a classified summary.
The call buffer opens a door “into the past,” the summary says, enabling users to “retrieve audio of interest that was not tasked at the time of the original call.” Analysts listen to only a fraction of 1 percent of the calls, but the absolute numbers are high. Each month, they send millions of voice clippings, or “cuts,” for processing and long-term storage.
While the Washington Post agreed not to reveal what countries MYSTIC is operational in, it’s difficult to see how the NSA could do this without assistance (knowing or unknowing) from the various telcos in the targeted countries. And, of course, once this effort is online, the NSA just wants to keep expanding it:
Some of the documents provided by Snowden suggest that high-volume eavesdropping may soon be extended to other countries, if it has not been already. The RETRO tool was built three years ago as a “unique one-off capability,” but last year’s secret intelligence budget named five more countries for which the MYSTIC program provides “comprehensive metadata access and content,” with a sixth expected to be in place by last October.
Basically, once the NSA has the ability to snoop on everyone’s phone calls, it only wants to do more of that. And more and more.
This program also helps to explain why the NSA has been so focused on getting that massive data center online in Bluffdale, Utah. There had been talk that the NSA had too much data to store and analyze effectively, but prior leaks didn’t seem to involve enough data to really cause a problem. However, storing the audio of 30 days of every phone call in a half a dozen (or more!) countries could certainly add up quite quickly. And, indeed, that’s what the documents suggest. Another document notes that this project “has long since reached the point where it was collecting and sending home far more than the bandwidth could handle.” Hence: Utah.
And, of course, having full audio of all phone calls can lead to all sorts of detailed information, including information on Americans (who, remember, the NSA isn’t supposed to spy on):
Highly classified briefings cite examples in which the tool offered high-stakes intelligence that would not have existed under traditional surveillance programs in which subjects were identified for targeting in advance. Unlike most of the government’s public claims about the value of controversial programs, the briefings supply names, dates, locations and fragments of intercepted calls in convincing detail.
Present and former U.S. officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity to provide context for a classified program, acknowledged that large numbers of conversations involving Americans would be gathered from the country where RETRO operates.
The NSA does not attempt to filter out their calls, defining them as communications “acquired incidentally as a result of collection directed against appropriate foreign intelligence targets.”
At this point, these kinds of leaks aren’t that surprising, but this does confirm some people’s suspicions about the NSA’s capabilities — and the continuing mission creep as it gets more and more powerful in what information it can collect and store.