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.
Apparently, this is a relatively new capability -- the program launched in 2009 and reached "full capacity" in 2011.
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.
As Gellman's report notes, this seems to (once again) contradict claims by US officials, including President Obama, that "the United States is not spying on ordinary people who don’t threaten our national security... and that we take their privacy concerns into account." Of course, that all depends on how you define "spying." In the "collect it all" world of the NSA, merely collecting that data isn't considered "spying."

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.

Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1. icon
    Capitalist Lion Tamer (profile), Mar 18th, 2014 @ 11:30am

    How reassuring. "Incidental" metadata is subject to more minimization guidelines and procedures than "incidental" communications.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. icon
    Jay (profile), Mar 18th, 2014 @ 11:32am

    Aha! Now thanks to this graphic, I finally understand the NSA's obsession with taking and hiding everything.

    Gandalf: "Keep it secret. Keep it safe."

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 18th, 2014 @ 11:40am

    Collecting snippets is playing Cardinal Richelieu's game, selecting a persons words to condemn them.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 18th, 2014 @ 11:53am

    and who is surprised by this now?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. icon
    Easily Amused (profile), Mar 18th, 2014 @ 11:58am

    I can't wait to see what lies the intelligence mouthpieces come up with this time...

    Just imagine how different things would be for them now if they had treated Snowden as a proper whistleblower, sacrificed a few figureheads, and pushed Congress to pass a more clearly defined law about domestic spying right from the start.

    They would still have secrecy for 90% of their bullshit programs, the administration would get points for working with Congress(and they could put most of the blame on Bush-era decisions and programs), Congress would get a few points for actually doing some work responsive to the public outcry and at least appear to be fulfilling their oversight responsibilities, and the fickle public opinion tide would have easily been manipulated on to the next news cycle.

    This is why I rarely give any credence to government conspiracy theorists... If anyone involved in this mess had half a brain for strategy they wouldn't be in this position. They always seem to be just rats in a fancy maze reacting to stimuli with very little forethought on consequences.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. identicon
    Mr. Oizo, Mar 18th, 2014 @ 11:58am

    Totally sure Germany is on the list.


    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. identicon
    Betcha, Mar 18th, 2014 @ 12:11pm

    I bet the first one began with Y (less sophisticated network than some others in the region and low enough population to hone the techniques). Followed by others close by, extending to P and A. Expand from there.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 18th, 2014 @ 12:44pm

    I suspect at least one of the targeted countries is predominantly English- or Spanish-speaking. Otherwise why would it be gathering large numbers of conversations involving Americans? Americans are notorious for lack of bilingualism, and the top two languages used by US persons are English and Spanish. If they had said conversations about Americans, it would be a much broader set of possibilities.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. icon
    Coyne Tibbets (profile), Mar 18th, 2014 @ 12:57pm

    I keep telling people: It's feasible for them to record all calls, so they most likely are.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 18th, 2014 @ 1:14pm

    Accessing international websites is slow?

    This is why, my friends... it's our government sucking up every bit of satellite and undersea cable bandwidth that they can in order to store the world's phone conversations in Utah.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 18th, 2014 @ 1:18pm


    Nah, too easy. They probably started with Britain and Germany. As Call-Me-Dave would love to be up Obama's arse, and Merkel needs some love this year, in the politisphere.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12. identicon
    Perkins, Mar 18th, 2014 @ 1:35pm

    This is pretty scary. Given that the President assured us that "the United States is not spying on ordinary people who donít threaten our national security", the NSA must have determined that there are entire countries where EVERYONE is either an extraordinary person or an ordinary person who threatens our national security. Scary stuff indeed.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 18th, 2014 @ 1:48pm

    Behavioral analysis says that whoever would choose that clashing purple, green, dark blue (logo) and that clipart for a presentation to supposed adults is obviously suffering from some sort of early-80s (remember blinking, grotesque early web sites) arrested development or even total tastelesness. Can't they do better? I am SO disappointed at the quality of the best of the best of the best, is this really where our tax dollars go?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 18th, 2014 @ 2:21pm


    Adults? They are children in a candy store, and without any adult supervision.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 18th, 2014 @ 2:34pm


    ďDo you know how wizards like to be buried?"
    "Well, how?"
    Granny Weatherwax paused at the bottom of the stairs.

    ― Terry Pratchett, Equal Rites

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 18th, 2014 @ 3:05pm

    Is anyone actually surprised that what you have heard our officials say that the NSA isn't doing is precisely what it is doing?

    How many times is this going to play in how many different ways before people understand there is no truth in these spying agencies nor the politicians that support them for the average person? You can not believe what any of them say when it comes to this. There is no creditability from the government when it comes to this spying. They will lie to you while looking you straight in the eyes.

    It is long ago time to actually do some accountability with both the government and our officials that represent us.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  17. icon
    Eldakka (profile), Mar 18th, 2014 @ 6:40pm


    "the United States is not spying on ordinary people who donít threaten our national security"

    The Whitehouse and Intelligence organisations think EVERYONE is, at least potentially, threatening their national security. Therefore by definition no-one falls within the "ordinary people who don't threaten our national security" category.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  18. icon
    Watchit (profile), Mar 19th, 2014 @ 4:56pm

    Daaaayum that wizard graphic... would put even the great Zazzerpan himself to shame.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  19. icon
    GEMont (profile), Mar 19th, 2014 @ 5:08pm

    What is remarkable - and what the rest of the world notes immediately - is that all of this was made possible by the willing generosity and consent of the american taxpayers, to pay for all of the training, technology and personnel needed to spy on and blackmail the world at large.

    Truly a magnificent accomplishment, although apparently, the Brits are staying neck and neck with their US counterparts.

    Looks like the two have painted a picture of human future, that makes Orwell's 1984 pale by comparison.

    Well done folks.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

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