Obama's Secret Terrorist-Tracking System, by the Numbers
Nearly half of the people on the US government's widely shared
of terrorist suspects are not connected to any known terrorist
"Complete and accurate surveillance as a means of
control is probably a practical impossibility. What is much more likely is a
loss of privacy and constant inconvenience as the wrong people gain access to information, as one
wastes time convincing the inquisitors that one is in fact innocent, or as one
struggles to untangle the errors of the errant machine." Victor
If only we could step
outside our normal way of thinking for a moment.
None of the frameworks
we normally call on to understand the
national security state capture the
genuine inanity, and actual madness that lie in the
Heart of Darkness.
"National security" is a
proselytizing warrior religion.
National security state has
National security state has its
Sacred Texts, but
they are classified and only for eyes that "need to know".
It has its
dogma and its
national security state is sanctified promised land,
known as "The Homeland."
security state has its seminaries, which we call think tanks.
The national security state is a
monotheistic faith in that it broaches no alternatives to itself.
The national security state is
Machiavellian in its view of the world.
As with so many religions, its god is
an-eye-in-the-sky, an all-seeing Being who knows your secrets.
adapted from Tom Engelhart
National Security Administration
NSA Creates Citizen Data Warehouse System
"The new Citizen Data Warehouse System (CDWS) will create a
containing detailed information about each US
citizen. Since the vast majority of
all US credit
card transactions will be fed through this new system,
the depth of
information will be unparalleled. Intelligent routing of this citizen data
the inter-connected computer systems of various federal agencies
will provide citizens
a new level of service from the federal
history of domestic surveillance
National Security Agency has been exploiting
its huge collections of data to create sophisticated graphs of some Americans'
social connections that can identify their associates, their locations at
certain times, their traveling companions and other personal information,
according to newly disclosed documents and interviews with officials.
The spy agency began allowing the analysis of phone call and e-mail
logs in November 2010 to examine Americans' networks of associations for
foreign intelligence purposes after N.S.A. officials lifted restrictions on the
practice, according to documents provided by Edward J. Snowden, the former
The policy shift was intended
to help the agency "discover and track" connections between intelligence
targets overseas and people in the US, according to an N.S.A. memorandum from
January 2011. The agency was authorized to conduct "large-scale graph analysis
on very large sets of communications metadata without having to check
foreignness" of every e-mail address, phone number or other identifier, the
document said. Because of concerns about infringing on the privacy of American
citizens, the computer analysis of such data had previously been permitted only
The agency can augment the communications data with
material from public, commercial and other sources, including bank codes,
insurance information, Facebook profiles, passenger manifests, voter
registration rolls and GPS location information, as well as property records
and unspecified tax data, according to the documents. They do not indicate any
restrictions on the use of such "enrichment" data, and several former senior
Obama administration officials said the agency drew on it for both Americans
N.S.A. officials declined to say how many Americans
have been caught up in the effort, including people involved in no wrongdoing.
The documents do not describe what has resulted from the scrutiny, which links
phone numbers and e-mails in a "contact chain" tied directly or indirectly to a
person or organization overseas that is of foreign intelligence interest.
The new disclosures add to the growing body of knowledge in recent
months about the N.S.A.'s access to and use of private information concerning
Americans, prompting lawmakers in Washington to call for reining in the agency
and President Obama to order an
examination of its surveillance policies. Almost everything about the
agency's operations is hidden, and the decision to revise the limits concerning
Americans was made in secret, without review by the nation's intelligence court
or any public debate. As far back as 2006, a Justice Department memo warned of
the potential for the "misuse" of such information without adequate safeguards.
An agency spokeswoman, asked about the analyses of Americans' data,
said, "All data queries must include a foreign intelligence justification,
"All of N.S.A.'s work has a foreign intelligence purpose," the
spokeswoman added. "Our activities are centered on counterterrorism,
counterproliferation and cybersecurity."
The legal underpinning of the
policy change, she said, was a 1979 Supreme
Court ruling that Americans could have no expectation of privacy about what
numbers they had called. Based on that ruling, the Justice Department and the
Pentagon decided that it was permissible to create contact chains using
Americans' "metadata," which includes the timing, location and other details of
calls and e-mails, but not their content. The agency is not required to seek
warrants for the analyses from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
N.S.A. officials declined to identify which phone and e-mail databases
are used to create the social network diagrams, and the documents provided by
Mr. Snowden do not specify them. The agency did say that the large database of
Americans' domestic phone call records, which was revealed by Mr. Snowden in
June and caused bipartisan alarm in Washington, was excluded. (N.S.A. officials
have previously acknowledged that the agency has done limited analysis in that
database, collected under provisions of the
exclusively for people who might be linked to terrorism suspects.)
the agency has multiple collection programs and databases, the former officials
said, adding that the social networking analyses relied on both domestic and
international metadata. They spoke only on the condition of anonymity because
the information was classified.
The concerns in the US since Mr.
Snowden's revelations have largely focused on the scope of the agency's
collection of the private data of Americans and the potential for abuse. But
the new documents provide a rare window into what the N.S.A. actually does with
the information it gathers. A series of agency PowerPoint presentations and
memos describe how the N.S.A. has been able to develop software and other tools
- one document cited a new generation of programs that "revolutionize" data
collection and analysis - to unlock as many secrets about individuals as
The spy agency, led by Gen. Keith B. Alexander, an unabashed
advocate for more weapons in the hunt for information about the nation's
adversaries, clearly views its collections of metadata as one of its most
powerful resources. N.S.A. analysts can exploit that information to develop a
portrait of an individual, one that is perhaps more complete and predictive of
behavior than could be obtained by listening to phone conversations or reading
e-mails, experts say.
Phone and e-mail logs, for example, allow
analysts to identify people's friends and associates, detect where they were at
a certain time, acquire clues to religious or political affiliations, and pick
up sensitive information like regular calls to a
psychiatrist's office, late-night messages to an extramarital partner or
exchanges with a fellow plotter.
"Metadata can be very revealing," said
Orin S. Kerr, a law professor at George Washington University. "Knowing things
like the number someone just dialed or the location of the person's cellphone
is going to allow them to assemble a picture of what someone is up to. It's the
digital equivalent of tailing a suspect." The N.S.A. had been pushing for more
than a decade to obtain the rule change allowing the analysis of Americans'
phone and e-mail data. Intelligence officials had been frustrated that they had
to stop when a contact chain hit a telephone number or e-mail address believed
to be used by an American, even though it might yield valuable intelligence
primarily concerning a foreigner who was overseas, according to documents
previously disclosed by Mr. Snowden. N.S.A. officials also wanted to employ the
agency's advanced computer analysis tools to sift through its huge databases
with much greater efficiency.
The agency had asked for the new power as
early as 1999, the documents show, but had been initially rebuffed because it
was not permitted under rules of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court
that were intended to protect the privacy of Americans.
A 2009 draft of
an N.S.A. inspector general's report suggests that contact chaining and
analysis may have been done on Americans' communications data under the Bush
administration's program of wiretapping without warrants, which began after the
Sept. 11 attacks to detect terrorist activities and skirted the existing laws
governing electronic surveillance.
In 2006, months after the
wiretapping program was disclosed by the New York
Times, the N.S.A.'s acting general counsel wrote a letter to a senior
Justice Department official, which was also leaked by Mr. Snowden, formally
asking for permission to perform the analysis on American phone and e-mail
data. A Justice Department memo to the attorney general noted that the "misuse"
of such information "could raise serious concerns," and said the N.S.A.
promised to impose safeguards, including regular audits, on the metadata
program. In 2008, the Bush administration gave its approval.
A new policy that year, detailed in "Defense
Supplemental Procedures Governing Communications Metadata Analysis," authorized
by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Attorney General
Michael B. Mukasey, said that
since the Supreme Court had ruled that
metadata was not constitutionally protected, N.S.A. analysts could use such
information "without regard to the nationality or location of the
communicants," according to an internal N.S.A. description of the policy.
After that decision, which was previously reported by The Guardian, the
N.S.A. performed the social network graphing in a pilot project for 1 ½
years "to great benefit," according to the 2011 memo. It was put in place in
November 2010 in "Sigint Management Directive 424" (sigint refers to signals
In the 2011 memo explaining the shift, N.S.A. analysts
were told that they could trace the contacts of Americans as long as they cited
a foreign intelligence justification. That could include anything from ties to
terrorism, weapons proliferation or international drug smuggling to spying on
conversations of foreign politicians, business figures or activists.
Analysts were warned to follow existing "minimization rules," which
prohibit the N.S.A. from sharing with other agencies names and other details of
Americans whose communications are collected, unless they are necessary to
understand foreign intelligence reports or there is evidence of a crime. The
agency is required to obtain a warrant from the intelligence court to target a
"US person" - a citizen or legal resident - for actual eavesdropping.
The N.S.A. documents show that one of the main tools used for chaining
phone numbers and e-mail addresses has the code name Mainway. It is a
repository into which vast amounts of data flow daily from the agency's
fiber-optic cables, corporate partners and foreign computer networks that have
The documents show that significant amounts of information
from the US go into Mainway. An internal N.S.A. bulletin, for example, noted
that in 2011 Mainway was taking in 700 million phone records per day. In August
2011, it began receiving an additional 1.1 billion cellphone records daily from
an unnamed American service provider under Section 702 of the 2008 FISA
Amendments Act, which allows for the collection of the data of Americans if at
least one end of the communication is believed to be foreign.
overall volume of metadata collected by the N.S.A. is reflected in the agency's
secret 2013 budget request to Congress. The budget document, disclosed by Mr.
Snowden, shows that the agency is pouring money and manpower into creating a
metadata repository capable of taking in 20 billion "record events" daily and
making them available to N.S.A. analysts within 60 minutes.
spending includes support for the "Enterprise Knowledge System," which has a
$394 million multiyear budget and is designed to "rapidly discover and
correlate complex relationships and patterns across diverse data sources on a
massive scale," according to a 2008 document. The data is automatically
computed to speed queries and discover new targets for surveillance.
top-secret document titled "Better Person Centric Analysis" describes how the
agency looks for 94 "entity types," including phone numbers, e-mail addresses
and IP addresses. In addition, the N.S.A. correlates 164 "relationship types"
to build social networks and what the agency calls "community of interest"
profiles, using queries like "travelsWith, hasFather, sentForumMessage,
A 2009 PowerPoint presentation provided more examples of data
sources available in the "enrichment" process, including location-based
services like GPS and TomTom, online social networks, billing records and bank
codes for transactions in the US and overseas.
At a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Thursday,
General Alexander was asked if the agency ever collected or planned to collect
bulk records about Americans' locations based on cellphone tower data. He
replied that it was not doing so as part of the call log program authorized by
the Patriot Act, but
said a fuller response would be classified.
If the N.S.A. does not
immediately use the phone and e-mail logging data of an American, it can be
stored for later use, at least under certain circumstances, according to
One 2011 memo, for example, said that after a court
ruling narrowed the scope of the agency's collection, the data in question was
"being buffered for possible ingest" later. A year earlier, an internal
briefing paper from the N.S.A. Office of Legal Counsel showed that the agency
was allowed to collect and retain raw traffic, which includes both metadata and
content, about "US persons" for up to five years online and for an additional
10 years offline for "historical searches."
James Risen reported from
Washington and New York. Laura Poitras, a freelance journalist, reported from
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