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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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Let's Look At The Data
By Stiggalicious on 5/6/2013 1:17:10 PM , Rating: 2
To shed some light on this, I thought I might calculate some things. I will assume some data, and gather some other data that I can find, so this is obviously just a ballpark figure.

# phone users in US: ~230 million
Average phone usage per person: 459 minutes/month
Data usage for compressed audio: 14.4Kbits/s

So when you calculate a total monthly data usage for storing phone conversations, you get 4.19GB/s, or 362.5TB of data added per day.

That's adding a 2TB hard drive to the stack every 8 minutes. Seagate must be getting some sweet business...

If the government has been doing this since 2002 (when the largest HDD was around 250GB) and has been continually storing data since then, that's a total of 1.45 MILLION Terabytes of data.Assuming the average hard drive size is 750GB, that's almost two million hard drives.
How many racks of servers would this take to fit?
The most dense commercially available storage system (excluding Backblaze, which is too new and too awesome for government) can fit 16 3.5" HDDs in a 3U case. A standard rack is 44U high, so that leaves us with 224 HDDs per rack.

Therefore, if you were to store every phone conversation in the US since 2002, you'd need over Eight and a half Thousand server racks of hard drives, which would fit in a building that's about 3.5 acres in size.

RE: Let's Look At The Data
By BRB29 on 5/6/2013 1:59:33 PM , Rating: 2

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.

If I was to record just to record the information of the speech then I only need recognizable speech as using for evidence is not allowed anyways. 800 bits/sec is good enough.
All converations are then screened and filtered. Most of them probably gets deleted. Of course a computer does all this based on keywords. The amount of data stored is nowhere near what anybody here is speculating.

RE: Let's Look At The Data
By 91TTZ on 5/6/2013 2:29:29 PM , Rating: 2
The most dense commercially available storage system (excluding Backblaze, which is too new and too awesome for government) can fit 16 3.5" HDDs in a 3U case.

We have disk arrays here at work that have 24 drives in a 2U chassis. They're the smaller drives that are becoming more popular.

RE: Let's Look At The Data
By BRB29 on 5/6/2013 2:59:30 PM , Rating: 2
It's a no brainer for any IT Director to know that recording phone convos are high capacity extremely low access data. The most cost effective way to do this is tape storage. They can last a long time if they are not constantly accessed. This technology has been around for a long time

Provide up to 900 PB of automated, low-cost storage under a single library image , improving floor space utilization and reducing storage cost per TB with IBM 3592 JC Enterprise Advanced Data Cartridges

One base frame and up to 15 expansion frames per library; up to 15 libraries interconnected per complex
Up to 12 drives per frame (up to 192 per library, up to 2,700 per complex)
Up to 224 I/O slots (16 I/O slots standard)
IBM 3592 JA/JJ/JB/JC and JW/JR/JX/JY write-once-read-many (WORM) cartridges or LTO Ultrium 6, 5 and 4 cartridges
Up to 125 PB compressed with LTO Ultrium 6 cartridges per library, up to 1.875 EB compressed per complex
Up to 180 PB compressed with 3592 extended capacity cartridges per library, up to 2.7 EB compressed per complex

RE: Let's Look At The Data
By 91TTZ on 5/6/2013 4:04:28 PM , Rating: 2
Yeah, the actually calls themselves would probably be stored on tapes, while the database containing the transcripts of the calls would be on disk. Then they can bring them up whenever they need to.

RE: Let's Look At The Data
By MrBlastman on 5/6/2013 3:09:57 PM , Rating: 2
Why would they use hard drives? Tapes man, tapes! They've been around for decades and they're quite a bit cheaper than hard drives. DAT tapes, digital tapes, tapes of all types. You use the hard drive to record a database of what tape goes with what set of calls and where it is stored. You use the tapes to record the actual conversations.

RE: Let's Look At The Data
By 91TTZ on 5/6/2013 3:22:29 PM , Rating: 2
If the government has been doing this since 2002 (when the largest HDD was around 250GB) and has been continually storing data since then, that's a total of 1.45 MILLION Terabytes of data...
Therefore, if you were to store every phone conversation in the US since 2002, you'd need over Eight and a half Thousand server racks of hard drives, which would fit in a building that's about 3.5 acres in size.

That's actually not that big for a datacenter. Where I work we have multiple datacenters, each of which that can handle this amount of data and my company isn't huge. Apple has a 20 acre datacenter and the government is working on things even bigger, such as this 35 acre monster capable of storing yottabytes (trillions of terabytes) worth of data.

To put it into perspective, at the data rate you mentioned, that new Utah Data Center would be able to store 7.5 million years' worth of phone calls. And that's if it's only 1 yottabyte. The article mentions it's many yottabytes.

RE: Let's Look At The Data
By Jeffk464 on 5/6/2013 5:40:20 PM , Rating: 2
I live next to that data center in your link, you want me to knock on the door and ask them?

PS should be good for property value, this area is turning into silicon valley.

RE: Let's Look At The Data
By Mint on 5/7/2013 10:57:28 AM , Rating: 2
We may not have kept everything since 2002, but your 400TB/day figure tells us how easy it is to archive this stuff today.

Even at retail prices, that costs less than $20k per day for raw storage, which is peanuts for the US gov't. Sure, processing and using that data in a meaningful way costs more, but it's well inside the realm of possibility.

After the Patriot Act passed, I gave up on all hope of protecting privacy from the gov't. At this point, though, I'd rather have them covering it up than make it public, because when trying to hide it they will be much more careful with the data to prevent egg on their face.

The last thing I want is for them to treat data as carelessly as corporations do, where we almost expect weekly breaches.

RE: Let's Look At The Data
By gmyx on 5/7/2013 3:31:17 PM , Rating: 2
I don't think math is correct at all:

Lets take your numbers: 230m users using 459 minutes a month, stored at 14.4kbit/s (I know it can be much lower)

That is 105 570 000 000 minutes of audio per month. But bit rates are in seconds: 844 560 000 000 seconds of audio.

Using 14.4kbits / second: 12 161 664 000 000 kbits required to store that. But that is bits... 1 520 208 000 000 kbytes. Full number: 1 520 208 000 000 000 bytes.

Space required per month: 1500tb -> 1.5pb per month.

Unless my math is wrong as well and you can down rate me ;)

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