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"All of that stuff is being captured as we speak whether we know it or like it or not" -- former FBI agent

Are the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and other federal agencies secretly working with telecommunication firms to record your every call for later use, if necessary?  That's the alarming possibility that's being raised by supposed leaks from government officials claiming that the investigation of last month's Boston bombing has refocused on phone calls the suspects placed to friends and family prior to the attack.

I. All Digital Communications Belong to Us

Concern intensified when on a segment of CNN's Out Front with Erin Burnett, former FBI counterterrorism agent Tim Clemente suggested that the FBI has access to every U.S. citizen's phone conversations past and present.  

The exchange went as follows:

Erin Burnett:
Tim, is there any way, obviously, there is a voice mail they can try to get the phone companies to give that up at this point. It's not a voice mail. It's just a conversation. There's no way they actually can find out what happened, right, unless she tells them?

Tim Clemente:
No, there is a way. We certainly have ways in national security investigations to find out exactly what was said in that conversation. It's not necessarily something that the FBI is going to want to present in court, but it may help lead the investigation and/or lead to questioning of her. We certainly can find that out.

So they can actually get that? People are saying, look, that is incredible.

No, welcome to America. All of that stuff is being captured as we speak whether we know it or like it or not.

In other words, according to this former FBI agent and well respected expert, every single conversation made by an American via wired or wireless phone signals is being recorded, in most cases without a warrant.  

Further, some are extrapolating his phrasing "no digital communication is secure" -- to suggest that the government and its corporate partners are also intercepting all other forms of communication, such as instant messages, emails, and private forum posts.  If accurate, again this interception would be in most cases without warrant.

II. Veterans Charged, Harassed by FBI for Blowing the Whistle

The program in question may trace back to the Pentagon and Nation Security Agencies' "Total Information Awareness" program (TIA), which launched in 2002 following the 9/11 attacks.  Officially that project -- whose goal was ostensibly comprehensive warrantless surveillance 24/7 of every American -- was scrapped amid public outcry.  But critics say the sweeping, Orwellian, and likely unconstitutional surveillance program was slowly and iteratively installed under more innocent sounding names in years to come.

Total Information Awareness

U.S. National Security Agency official William (Bill) Binney in late 2001 resigned over the government spending "millions and millions of dollars" on TIA's predecessor "TrailBlazer".  He commented on the system, "It's better than anything that the KGB, the Stasi, or the Gestapo and SS ever had."

Mr. Binney was just one of several NSA officials to resign when they realized the scope of what the Bush administration's intelligence agencies were planning.  J. Kirk Wiebe and Ed Loomis also left in protest and joined the complaint.

A fellow Trailblazer protester, former NSA agent and U.S. Air Force and Navy Thomas Andrews Drake spent a half-decade between 2000 and 2004 working his way up the command chain filing protests and complaints against Trailblazer.  He would eventually leak allegedly non-classified information to reporters after his complaints internally fell on deaf ears.

FBI Agents
The FBI have been busy raiding the houses of whistleblowers over the last decade and charging them with ambiguous "crimes". [Image Source: Global Elite]

After decades of honorably serving their country Binney, Drake, and others found themselves under the microscope, having their homes raided by the FBI.  In 2010, the government threw virtually every ambiguous charge it could against Mr. Drake, including counts of obstructing justice, making a false state, and computer fraud for "exceeding authorized use" of a computer.  Most charges were eventually dropped, but Mr. Drake pled down, pleading guilty to the exceeding authorized use charge.

President Obama
President Obama has had no tolerance for "snitches" in the intelligence community.
[Image Source: AP]

President Obama's crackdown on whistleblowers has been called unprecedented.

III. Surveillance Continues at Room 641a and Other Secret Locations

Meanwhile, in a 2007-era whistleblower-report supporting a lawsuit filed against the federal government by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an expert witness suggested that the surveillance efforts were alive and well.  The witness in a court deposition wrote that the NSA had worked with AT&T, Inc. (T), the second largest wireless carrier in the country on a program to "vacuum up" phone traffic, internet traffic, emails, and more without warrant.

In that report, a retired 22-year AT&T technician, Mark Klein, recalls "that the NSA set up a system that vacuumed up Internet and phone-call data from ordinary Americans with the cooperation of AT&T" and that "contrary to the government's depiction of its surveillance program as aimed at overseas terrorists . . . much of the data sent through AT&T to the NSA was purely domestic."

The alleged interception took place at a shadowy site dubbed "Room 641a" at an AT&T facility in San Francisco, Calif.  The room allegedly used splitters to duplicate and record every single communication for the region over fiber optic lines.  The facility was reportedly just one of multiple such facilities across the country.  Mr. Klein said he believed that virtually every major telecom/internet service provider was involved in the scheme and that virtually every form of digital communication was being recorded, based on his own first-hand experience.

IV. Many Americans Happy to Live in "1984 State" in Exchange for Safety 

Many naïvely hoped that under the President Barack Obama who campaigned under the slogan "Hope" that the domestic surveillance would be scaled back.  They pointed to a noisy "liberal" minority in Congress, which included Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oreg.) and Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) who had often warned that Americans would be "shocked" to know the extent of surveillance (members of Congress cannot share information on such programs, as that would be a crime).

But much like President Bush bucked members of a vocal minority in his party like Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.), President Obama's policies seemed to reject these dissenting voices and embrace his party's majority view (that all human communications must be captured in the name of fighting terrorism).  While President Obama often spoke of the need to "preserve civil liberties', he aggressively pushed to continue and expand Bush-era programs.

Bush and Obama
President Obama and his predecessor President Bush agree on many things, including that the federal government should be granted unregulated spying on its citizens.
[Image Source:]

The majority in both parties has embraced the perspective that the need for security trumps civil liberties.

Rep. Paul famously exclaimed on a late night television program, "Democracy isn't all that healthy in this country because if you're in a third party... you don't get in the debates... And if you ever come to the conclusion -- heaven forbid -- that the two parties aren't all that different, then what is left really?"

In 2010 when Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates briefly banned the use of Blackberries over Blackberry Ltd.'s (TSE:BB) refusal to give government regulators access to its encryption codes to customer communications, President Obama condemned the move.  But just weeks later his cabinet demanded access to all digital communications "including encrypted e-mail transmitters like BlackBerry, social networking Web sites like Facebook and software that allows direct 'peer to peer' messaging like Skype."

RIM eventually caved to the Arab nations' demands, installing similar surveillance systems as it allows in the U.S. and India.

In other words the consistent theme of the Obama administration's message to foreign governments has seemingly been: Do as I say, not as I DO.

Burning Constitution
4 out of 10 Americans would give up their Constitutional freedoms for safety from terrorism.  
[Source: Conservative Action Alerts]
But that may not hurt the administration as much politically as it would have in the past.  A poll [PDF] by CNN/TIME/ORC found out that approximately 4 out of 10 Americans would support giving up "some civil liberties" in the name of fighting an ambiguous "terrorism" threat.  That number is down just slightly since 9/11/2001, when 6 out of 10 Americans said they would gladly surrender their civil rights for safety.

While many might see merit in such arguments of safety and convenience, it's perhaps best to close with the words of Ben Franklin, who in his notes to the Pennsylvania Assembly famously wrote, "They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.

Source: CNN on YouTube

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RE: Likely not entirely accurate
By Dr of crap on 5/6/2013 12:36:19 PM , Rating: 0
I'd have to say BS. The storage space needed for all TEXTS delivered in one day would be great. Now add voice and from every cell for days or months, or years as one poster on here has said,- hugh storage needed!

RE: Likely not entirely accurate
By BRB29 on 5/6/2013 12:45:55 PM , Rating: 4
until you realize that youtube and netflix stores videos which takes up space magnitudes higher than what basic voice and text data will ever take up.

RE: Likely not entirely accurate
By chripuck on 5/6/2013 1:08:42 PM , Rating: 2
Until you realize that 160 million Americans making 1 hour of telephone calls a day stored at 64kbps audio rate would result in 33 PETAbytes of data. That's 34,000 terabytes or 35,000,000 gigabytes. In a single day.

Assuming they used 16kbps compressed audio you could cut it by 75% but you're still looking at 8.4 petabytes a day or 8,600 terabytes.

If you didn't read this article and immediately think BS, you're either incredibly gullible or not nearly as "techie" as you think you are.

RE: Likely not entirely accurate
By woody1 on 5/6/2013 1:23:40 PM , Rating: 2
You are correct, sir.

RE: Likely not entirely accurate
By BRB29 on 5/6/2013 1:43:14 PM , Rating: 2
Until you realize you are wrong lol

800 bit/s – minimum necessary for recognizable speech, using the special-purpose FS-1015 speech codecs.
1400 bit/s – lowest bitrate open-source speech codec Codec2.[13]
2.15 kbit/s – minimum bitrate available through the open-source Speex codec.
8 kbit/s – telephone quality using speech codecs.

After compression, I see no problems storing these things.
You also fail to realize there are screening systems so not all conversations are recorded.

RE: Likely not entirely accurate
By brasstax on 5/6/2013 6:34:05 PM , Rating: 2
Why store audio at all when you can store plain text transcriptions instead? Afterall, all this stuff needs to be transcribed in the first place to pull out all those scary words.

RE: Likely not entirely accurate
By BRB29 on 5/7/2013 2:25:41 PM , Rating: 2
because a text transcription requires the audio to be translated into words. The problem with voice recognition is it's no efficient enough. The best voice recognition is and will always be a human.

Google and Apple has made strides in voice recognition but it is still not efficient. You think that it works most of the time because it recognize the most used words. So it's basically using probability to guess words more than recognizing words. But I have to say it is 100x better than what we had in the 90s. Still not anywhere close to being able to perfect transcribe something.

RE: Likely not entirely accurate
By FaaR on 5/6/2013 5:26:43 PM , Rating: 2
Your contrived and fabricated example is of course tailored to come out to the conclusion you wish it to. I doubt 160 million americans spend a full hour per day on the phone. Also, even 16kbit/s is excessive for what you need to store simple voice communication in a very narrow frequency band (500Hz-3kHz roughly.)

RE: Likely not entirely accurate
By Nutzo on 5/6/2013 1:09:48 PM , Rating: 2
Text storage is nothing compared to current drive space.
Phone conversations would be much higher, but with the advances in storage the past few years, it's not a big deal.

With 4TB drives, I can build a simple 2U server with 48TB of storage. With Raid 6, that would still be 40TB
You can install 20 2u servers in a rack, so that's 800TB of raid storage in a single rack. Multiply that by 40-50 racks, and they could store anything they want, in duplicate.

Do you still think the government, with the trillions it spends, couldn't afford to store all the texts/calls people make?

RE: Likely not entirely accurate
By chripuck on 5/6/2013 1:17:47 PM , Rating: 2
See my comment: you have your sense of scale wrong regarding audio. Even at 16kbps, with 160 million Americans making 1 hour of phone calls a day would result in petabyts of data... for a single day. Even if redundancy wasn't an issue it would take nearly 3000 3 TB hard drives to store a single days worth of phone calls.

RE: Likely not entirely accurate
By woody1 on 5/6/2013 1:30:02 PM , Rating: 2
Carriers have trouble keeping up with the services they make money from and have no desire to lose money by doing things that don't make them money. Everything in the telecom world is engineered close to capacity to save money. Thus, telecoms only buy new storage when they absolutely have to.

The idea that the telecoms would spend vast amounts of money to store conversations with no profit to be made is absurd. Telecoms argue endlessly over whether to put more money into voicemail systems, network capacity, etc. Nobody would be able to justify wasting money on storing conversations for no reason.

The NSA, on the other hand, might want to do this and might eventually have the capacity to do so. They're the ones to be concerned about.

RE: Likely not entirely accurate
By BRB29 on 5/6/2013 1:51:31 PM , Rating: 3
see my post..nah i'll just repost like you did

800 bit/s – minimum necessary for recognizable speech, using the special-purpose FS-1015 speech codecs.
1400 bit/s – lowest bitrate open-source speech codec Codec2.[13]
2.15 kbit/s – minimum bitrate available through the open-source Speex codec.
8 kbit/s – telephone quality using speech codecs.

This is before compression and before filtering out most of the crap.

The other thing is people don't even average 1 hr a day. I'm on the phone maybe a total of 4 hrs a month. My work phone barely gets used also. Information is more reliable through text messages and emails. I only know of one person that actually use more than 900 minutes a month but that's because she didn't have a job.

RE: Likely not entirely accurate
By Camikazi on 5/6/2013 1:56:58 PM , Rating: 2
That would be you, but there are many work places and people who spend more than 1 hour per day on the phone as an average. You make a god point about the compression and the bitrates but messed up thinking that you represent the average people when it comes to telephone use.

RE: Likely not entirely accurate
By BRB29 on 5/6/2013 2:06:09 PM , Rating: 2
no it's not. Look at these statistics based on teens. We all know teens use phones more than anyone.

It would say an average person would only spend 400-500 minutes a month.

Then you calculate that after screen all phone calls, only 10%(guess) contain the keywords they are looking for and only those gets recorded. Yeah, the numbers just gets smaller and smaller.

If you guys don't realize this, there's more to storage than just Hard drives. What you see everyday is not everything that exist.

RE: Likely not entirely accurate
By Bad-Karma on 5/6/2013 1:25:52 PM , Rating: 2
Actually you guys need to think more along the lines of massive robotic LTO tape libraries for long term storage.

In my line of work, Quantum and a few others are very big within government IT. You see some very extensive systems being deployed. I've even see on with a robot using hard drives. The actual walls where the stored the drives was bigger than a couple of Imax theater walls slapped together. And then there were multiple walls.

RE: Likely not entirely accurate
By BRB29 on 5/6/2013 2:08:39 PM , Rating: 2
You have common sense :)

By timothyd97402 on 5/6/2013 3:02:22 PM , Rating: 2
And yet the Library of Congress is right now embarking on a project to record every tweet that every twit ever twittered for posterity.

Believe, my friend. The NSA already has one facility that covers square miles of land. The budget for that outfit is estimated at over 50 billion a year. All they do is listen to, record and analyze electronic communications.

$50 billion dollars a year buys a LOT of hard drives and computers.

RE: Likely not entirely accurate
By 91TTZ on 5/6/2013 4:02:36 PM , Rating: 2
The space needed for texts is miniscule. A full-length text message is 140 bytes, and that's if you type a 160 character text.

A normal 1 TB hard drive would store about 7 billion texts. Most texts are smaller than this, and some people send pictures, but as you can see it doesn't really come out to be a whole lot. Wikipedia says that in 2010, about 6.1 trillion texts were sent worldwide. So it would be easily storable in a very small datacenter.

By Rott3nHIppi3 on 5/10/2013 12:51:54 PM , Rating: 2
Speaking from experience (and going down this path)... Sprint holds all phone call info and text msgs for 2 yrs. Can't obtain it without a subpoena, but yeah.......They're storing it.

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