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 irrationality, genuine inanity, and
actual madness that lie at in the Heart of Darkness.
security" is, at Heart, 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
The national security state has its sanctified promised
land, known as "the homeland."
The national 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 and foreigners.
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
"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
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
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
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 intelligence).
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.
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.
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 been hacked.
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.
The 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.
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.
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, employs."
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.
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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