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France: Gone | Main | Chinese Singing "Robot"
November 03, 2006

Not Dirty

Disagreeing with Allah is good for traffic. So let me do so again.

He says the ad is misleading because it fails to state that Democrats oppose not wiretapping, but wiretapping without a warrant.

I think that's incorrect. Or rather, it's correct, but requiring a warrant as we understand the concept destroys the entire program.

The details of this are sketchy, and what I'm about to write may be 99% bullshit. But this is my understanding of what's going on.

When we speak of "wiretapping," we have the image of an FBI guy posing as a telephone repairman entering a building's basement to clip into a single line. And then FBI agents sitting around, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes as 1970's era magnetic-tape disks spin, recording, and they listen to the conversations.

That's not what the NSA is doing. I don't believe that's what the NSA has ever done.

The dirty secret here -- which Bush has to obfuscate -- is that the NSA indiscriminately intercepts and records virtually every broadcast communication signal in the entire world, except those which it may be legally forbidden to intercept and record, such as those calls beamed between stations in the US.

Telephone calls -- even "landline" calls -- are mostly broadcast at some point. Broadcast. Via radio signal. Which can be intercepted. Signals travel over the physical cable only until the point they're beamed out from a transmitter station. They get received by the destination transmitter, and then return, at some point, to the wires, and then to your phone.

The Soviets proposed building their new embassy in the seventies or eighties on a bit of hill in or around DC. The US government didn't realize until after the embassy had been substantially built it that it lay in perfect position to capture most of the transmitted telephone calls from the DC area, as it was in a prime location to capture all signals being beamed from a major trasmitting station.

I forget how that all worked out. I think the Soviets got to keep their embassy -- but we moved the transmitting station.

At any rate: What the NSA does -- what its satellites, spy antennaes, and computers do, 24 hours a day, 365 days per year -- is indiscriminately capture every single beamed single it can, and then record those signals into its huge number of computers.

In the past, it had to be more discriminate about recording. There was a limit to computer memory.

Not any longer. It doesn't cost so terribly much to simply purchase enough computers to record just about every broadcast communication in the world.

Which is what they do, more or less.

Again: At least to the extent law allows them. And the law, presumably, forbids them from capturing purely domestic station-to-station signals. But outside the US, or from the US to the rest of the world, their machines just capture every word broadcast through the air.

The idea they're "indiscriminately" capturing this information sounds scary, until one realizes: While the automated part of this procedure is vast and indiscriminate, it's all still limited by the number of humans that can conceivably be hired to sift through all this collected signal intelligence and actually listen. They can't listen to any more than, say, 1% of what they capture, tops. So they prioritize the way you'd imagine they would, and listen in on only that tiny fraction of signals that could reasonably be expected to say something interesting.

The rest just sits there in those huge rows of computers. Collected, but unheard by any human in the world, save for the parties actually involved in the conversation.

This is what I think Bush's NSA program consists of -- he's taken off all previous restraints on what can and can't be collected and said, "You have the capability of capturing almost all of it, or at least a big fraction of it. Do so."

What's the point of capturing all these signals if they're not going to be analyzed, or event translated, or even listened to by a single human being?

Well, if you've already got it all stored, you can listen in later, when you realize you may have captured terrorists talking in your big net. Once you know what you're looking for, you can dig into those big computer banks and listen to all the calls placed by the phone number you've just discovered may be a terrorist's cell-phone.

A conventional warrant allows one to listen going forward. You don't have a recording of any conversations before the warrant; only after.

But this isn't a normal domestic law-enforcement tap. This is worldwide indiscriminate collection of signals data. We're collecting everything we can.

And it's only once we have reason to believe a certain public phone in Cairo is being used to send orders to a terrorist cell that we actually listen to the recorded calls.

If Bush is required to get a warrant for this sort of intelligence -- note, not law-enforcement, intelligence -- collection of information, he can only get conversations "going forward" from the time of the authorization.

He can't, as he can now, I believe, sift back into previous captures and listen in on what newly identified terrorist suspects have been saying for, say, the past two years.

The NSA has always been doing this, more or less. Capturing everything it could; it's just been able to capture and store more as computer memory has become so cheap, and we've put satellites and listening posts every damn where we could.

The new legal twist, I think, is that where prior rules prevented such indiscriminate signal-capturing with regard to both domestic-to-domestic traffic, Bush has opend it up so that now domestic-to-foreign and foreign-to-domestic traffic can be so captured. Foreign-to-foreign was always open game; now domestic-to-foreign gets captured in the global sweeps too.

Which is why I don't think this ad is terribly misleading. An awful lot of possibly vital information would be, if the Democrats had their way, entirely lost. You can't just say "you can get it with a warrant." Getting a warrant presupposes you already have good reason to suspect someone of a crime. What the NSA is doing now is capturing lots of signals that won't be listened to until they get information that tells them it's worth it to dedicate a lot of manhours to sifting through it all.

Obviously you can't do that -- go back and listen in on previously-recorded, but never actually "eavesdropped" -- signals if a warrant is required for every capture.

I think the term "eavesdropping" is misleading -- the signals are being captured or "intercepted" all the time, but very few of these are being "eavesdropped" on. As in -- no one's actually listening.

Google Mail is right now recording millions and millions of email messages on its servers, but are they "eavesdropping" on you, or spying on you, if no human being ever actually opens your mail up and reads it? Sure, that gives Google employees the ability to look into your mail anytime they want (assuming they can get access to the mail, which any determined employee could), but few get the Fascism Chills from the idea that a Google geek could, if he wanted, read your mail. We sort of understand that there's too many damn messages floating around in Google servers that the chance of our emails being actually read is pretty remote.

And so it is with signals intercept. Yes, Bush is indiscriminately capturing all broadcast signals from the US to the world or from the world to the US. But it's a rather remote possibility that an NSA guy is going to decide to begin just listening to a weeks-old recording of your call to your Mom as she vacations in Aruba.

Maybe a warrant can be required for actually listening in to these recorded messages, but I think the national security interest outweighs any privacy interest in merely having them intercepted and stored in an NSA supercomputer (probably to never be accessed, but just to sit idle, for all posterity).

Requiring a warrant for specific calls defeats the entire purpose of the NSA's voracious, indiscriminate signals-eating.

People may not think such a program is warranted. They may be creeped out by the idea that their international calls are being intercepted and stored in a memory bank (but almost never actually "eavesdropped" on) and say we ought to be more narrow and more discriminating in capturing signals involving a US citiizen.

That's a fair position.

But I just don't think it's true that "all of this can be done with the warrant requirement." With a warrant requirement, no signal sent before the warrant can ever be analyzed later, because it was never captured in the first place.

So, you can come down any way you like on this, but, if what I think is going on is in fact more or less what's going on, you cannot claim that the warrant requirement loses you nothing in terms of intelligence. It loses you quite a bit, actually. The privacy issue may outweigh what you lose, but it's simply wrong to say it's a cost-free choice.

Anthropomoprhizing the NSA: I think it's wrong to say the NSA is, as a general matter, "listening in" to calls. That anthropomorphizes the plainly inhuman. Inhuman machines, without the ability to comprehend human speech, are intercepting and recording. But they aren't "listening," as they can't listen. Just as Google Mail itself cannot "read" your emails. Computers can't read, except for machine code, which you're probably not writing it.

Only humans can actually listen in or read. Computers can scan for keywords in emails, but of course anyone smart will write in code-phrases. And while computers can, sort of, understand spoken English, this seems restricted at the moment to recognizing simple words like "yes" and "no" and numbers and letters.

And they're not even very good at that, if my experience is any guide. The NSA has more sophisticated software, I'd guess, than Verizon, but not that much more sophisticated. If Verizon's computers have trouble with the simple, single word "no," I sort of doubt the NSA's word-recognition software can catch euphemisms for "bomb" being spoken quickly in slang and incomplete sentences in Arabic.

So, to me, to say this program consists of "listening in" is metaphorically dramatic but utterly misleading in reality.

Some of these intercepts will actually be "listened in" on, but no more than 1%, and that is probably too high a figure by two orders of magnitude. If one ten-thousandth of signals traffic is actually being listened to by human beings, I'd be a bit surprised.

The Soviet Embassy, I'm sure, did not have the manpower to listen in to all the calls being broadcast through DC. Especially during peak hours. Their intent, I'm have to imagine, was simply to capture as much as they could, record it on to big clunky wheels of magnetic tape, and ship it back to the USSR where there were many more people who could listen to it and translate it and analyze it at leisure.

But even then, in a more primative time in signals intelligence, where the capacity to interecept did not far outstrip the capacity to actually listen, most of the intercepted calls would never have gotten listened to. Even important ones -- they simply would have been missed, as the next day's batch of intercpeted calls came in. The mountain of information would grow too high, too quickly, to ever dig into but a bit of it.

And nowadays it's even worse. There's just too much information being captured.

The limiting factor is the human factor. That's the bottleneck. Your machines can capture millions and millions of transmitted signals per day, but with a staff of even 10,000 or so, how much of it can you really get to?

digg this
posted by Ace at 04:53 PM

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