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Americans fall victim as NSA guns for a yottabyte data haul

The latest revelation regarding the extent of U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) spying comes courtesy of The Washington Post, which published a fresh set of documents (as always) from leaker Edward Joseph Snowden, a former contractor for the NSA.  Given his former status as a contractor, he was not allowed to whistleblow no matter what potentially criminal actions he witnessed his coworkers at the NSA doing.  Hence, he fled to Russia -- the only nation willing to defy the U.S. and grant him asylum.
 
I. Lies the President Told Me
 
While controversial, the flight has given him the time to continue to drop fresh bombshells, such as the documents revealed on Tuesday about MYSTIC, a secret phone surveillance program.
 
In a Jan. 17 speech U.S. President Barack Obama (D) claimed:

The United States is not spying on ordinary people who don’t threaten our national security... we take their privacy concerns into account.

Obama
President Obama claimed to Americans that law-abiding citizens in the U.S. and ally states were not spied upon.  That claims appears to be a lie. [Image Source: AP]

Simply put, the President misled, and we now know that law-abiding citizens are being spied on to an extent so incredible that it stretches the bounds of the imagination.
 
One of the biggest programs responsible for such violations is dubbed "MYSTIC".

MYSTIC

MYSTIC was launched in 2009, but wasn't fully operational until 2011 given technical limitations and its incredibly ambitious aim.  From the start, MYSTIC's goal was simple -- intercept all metadata and audio from phone calls in a target region.  That includes every single call from every single law abiding person in the nations that the program currently targets (yes, it targets more than one, as you'll find out).
 
The program is currently deployed in at least two target countries.  Documents from the FY2013 Congressional budget suggest allocating an undisclosed amount of taxpayer dollars to provide "complete access to the additional target country".  From this (and the previous documents from 2011) the text suggests that the program is live in at least two target countries.
 
But apparently that number has grown even bigger.  
 
II. Five Nations are Currently Under "Complete" Surveillance
 
While originally justified as a "unique one-off capability" aimed at a specific country, the program now targets several nations.  According to The Washington Post, the redacted, secret Congressional budget states that it allows "comprehensive metadata access and content" (aka: records all communications) in five target countries.  The addition of a sixth target nation is scheduled to wrap up in October.
 
While it would be tempting to hope that surveillance might be trained against enemy states such as Iran or Russia, past leaks have indicated that some of America's heaviest surveillance has targeted the homeland and wealthy economic rivals such as France and Germany.  Thus while it’s unsurprising to discover a hotbed of terrorism, such as Pakistan was targeted, the NSA's track record would suggest that it would be equally unsurprising to instead discover that America's allies like France and Germany were targeted.
 
Given past claims by former officials that all American phone calls are being recorded and stored, it's possible the program even targeted America itself.

NSA tracking
Metadata allows the NSA to track millions, possibly even billions of people worldwide.
[Image Source: EFF]

It does appear the The Washington Post knows the identity of at least one of the target nations.  Columnists Barton Gellman and Ashkan Soltani write:

At the request of U.S. officials, The Washington Post is withholding details that could be used to identify the country where the system is being employed or other countries where its use was envisioned.

Given that the Obama administration has threatened criminal charges against members of the media in the past, it's not surprising to hear the publication's hands were tied (for now) on the topic.  
 
According to The Guardian the administration of President Obama has charged more than twice as many whistleblowers with Espionage Act (18 U.S.C. § 792) offenses as all the previous administrations before him (since the Act was passed in 1917) combined.
 
III. Agents Comb Through Millions of Recordings of Americans', Foreigners' Phone Calls.
 
In the case of MYSTIC, we see for the first time the NSA mining literally all the metadata and voice data of at least two countries.  According to documents every single call in the target nations is collected and stored locally for at least 30 days.

Phone calls
The NSA stores every single phone call in the targeted nations for 30 days.
[Image Source: Warner Bros.]

Metadata collection was handled under the FASCIA program -- a program that also is used to reap the metadata of virtually every call made in the U.S., tell the NSA where you were, at what time you were there, and who you were talking to.

FASCIA
Despite technical challneges, FASCIA is storing 5 billion metadata records a day.

The NSA complains in leaked documents of the headache of transporting so much data back to the U.S.  A document comments:

SCALAWAG (US­3310BG) has long since reached the point where it was collecting and sending home far more than the bandwidth could handle. Over collecting has significantly increased the latency of pri 1­2 content data. Because SCALAWAG is NSA's #1 provider of actionable SIGINT on [REDACTED COUNTRY NAME], measures had to be taken to alleviate pressure on the bandwidth and decrease latency of priority 1­2 data. In the summer of 2011, in an effort decrease the amount of voice content brought home, SSO deleted a large quantity of priority 4 and below tasking that was bringing content and according to the DOUBLEARROW database had not been "touched".  Additionally, a change of priority 4 tasking to priority 6 was effected, again based on DOUBLEARROW results. As a result, the latency for primarily pri 1­2 had dropped considerably. However, these actions were still falling short because the volume of collection was increasing ....

SCALAWAG is the remote database(s) used to locally store the harvested data.  As the above account states, agents then use filtering tools such as "DOUBLEARROW" (a tool for filtering voice data) to create "cuts" -- snippets of millions of phone calls every month.  While these millions of snippets only account for "a fraction of 1 percent of the calls", it goes on to state that the "absolute numbers are very high".
 
Agents use a tool called RETRO to inspect and perform the cuts, up to 30 days after the call was placed.  Once they save the data in long-term storage, other tools can be used.
 
IV. President Obama and the NSA Don't Believe They Need Permission From Congress
 
Assuming the NSA isn't targeting America directly with MYSTIC, it's almost certain that some Americans' data is scooped up by SCALAWAG.  And it's possible some of it is even saved in long-term storage, against the orders of Congress, and in defiance of the laws that supposedly govern the NSA.

PRISM flow chart
NUCLEON is a final destination for NSA voice content.

The NSA has already effectively acknowledged that it is actively spying on Congress and that it commits serious violations of the law thousands of times a year.  It blames its illegal activity on "human error", such as typos in searches, which happen to expose Americans' sensitive data.
 
But overseas, the violations may be far worse.  Sources close to the agency indicate to The Washington Post that the NSA feels it has no obligation to avoid spying on Americans whose phone calls it records overseas.  It says such items are "acquired incidentally", but as they are "a result of collection directed against appropriate foreign intelligence targets", no filtering is necessary.

NSA Data
Americans' data is vulnerable to the NSA, both at home and overseas.
[Image Source: ClimateViewer 3D]

An independent panel in December suggested that all data known to belong to Americans "be purged upon detection" by the NSA.  But President Obama and the NSA rejected that provision.
 
The administration justifies its actions with Executive Order 12333, an order which the Obama administration believes nullifies the authority of Congress and the Justice Department, granting the President unlimited power to conduct spying overseas -- including (in the administration's opinion) on American citizens.

NSA PRISM
MYSTIC is a critical part of the NSA's PRISM machine.

Timothy H. Edgar, the former director of privacy and civil liberties on Obama’s national security staff, argues that even if Congress rolls back or restricts the controversial amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act -- e.g. the U.S.A. PATRIOT Act Additional Reauthorizing Amendments Act of 2006 -- the administration believes it still has plenty of authority to defy Congress and spy on everyone.

Comments Mr. Edgar:

Much of the U.S. government’s intelligence collection is not regulated by any statute passed by Congress.  There’s a lot of focus on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which is understandable, but that’s only a slice of what the intelligence community does.  [All data must be for nationals security, but that] still leaves a gap for activities that otherwise basically aren’t regulated by law because they’re not covered by FISA.

In order to inspect and cut down SCALAWAG's harvest, the NSA also employs voice-to-text transcription and smart data mining tools that drop links into conversations. For example, if you say someone's name, a link to their phone number might be added.  The content of the collected call and its relations to other callers of interest determines the call's "priority" level.

Nucleon phone recording

Higher priority calls are chopped up and offloaded to long-term storage in NUCLEON, which reportedly houses data for at least 15 years. Meanwhile FASCIA allows virtually all of the metadata -- a substantially leaner information format -- to be hauled back to the U.S. and placed in long-term storage.
 
V. NSA Once More Claims it Needs to Spy to Defeat Phantom Foes
 
Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council -- a group which represents both the NSA and other agencies -- defended the program in a general sense, stating:

New or emerging threats [are] often hidden within the large and complex system of modern global communications, and the United States must consequently collect signals intelligence in bulk in certain circumstances in order to identify these threats.

watching eyes
[Image Source: PC World]

NSA spokeswoman Vanee Vines takes things a step further, blasting those members of the press bold enough to report on this surveillance.  She writes The Washington Post:

Continuous and selective reporting of specific techniques and tools used for legitimate U.S. foreign intelligence activities is highly detrimental to the national security of the United States and of our allies, and places at risk those we are sworn to protect.

The NSA has finally admitted for all its years of spying it has -- at most -- assisted in investigating one or two terrorist plots.  But these plots may have been overseas in Iraq.  Indeed, it's very probable that the NSA data mining has never been able to help foil a U.S. terror scheme.
 
But again, the agency is asserting that it needs to spy on everyone to offer indeterminate protection from indeterminate threats.  
 
Peter Swire, a member of the President's review panel, asserts:

It's important to have institutional protections so that advanced capabilities used overseas don't get turned against our democracy at home.

But the reality is that the President rejected that argument and has shown no signs of slowing down.  Currently the campaign covers six regions.
 
VI. A Dark Future
 
To the administration it has unchecked legal power.  Thus the primary obstacle to recording every word spoken into a phone by Americans or our allies is merely technical limitations.  
 
And the administration is working tirelessly to wipe out those limitations. It's currently in the process of building a state of the art storage center in Utah to provide deep, long-term storage.  Vaguely resembling a jelly bean, the facility is believed to have gone online last October.
NSA data center
The NSA's new Utah data center has an estimated 1 yottabyte of storage.
[Image Source: Silicon Angle]

But the NSA is also building an even bigger follow-up facility in Baltimore, spending $792M USD in taxpayer money, or over $2 dollars per U.S. taxpayer.
 
At this point the main thing holding the NSA back isn't even storage, but simple bandwidth.  But as global high-speed data conduits continue to grow, the NSA will acquire new routes to funnel its massive hoards of data.  
 
Civil liberties advocates say that unless something is done quickly, it may be too late to stop the police state's universal tax and spy campaign.  Comments Christopher Soghoian, chief technologist for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU):

Over the next couple of years they will expand to more countries, retain data longer and expand the secondary uses.

In other words, the glimpse that leaker Edward Snowden has given us is just the tip of the ever enlarging iceberg.  

Yes We Scan
[Image Source: Patheos]

The NSA didn't stop at complete surveillance of one nation.  It didn't stop at complete surveillance of two nations.  It didn't stop at complete surveillance of a half dozen nations.  And it likely won't stop until American taxpayers and Congress find a way to wrest power from it, or it achieves its goal of ubiquitous, loosely regulated surveillance.

Sources: The Washington Post [1], [2], [3]





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