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March 18, 2014

Snowden Reveals Program That Recorded All of an Unnamed Country's Phone Calls

This is a terribly damaging disclosure, and it will only get worse, once Snowden reveals which country was bugged, or that country figures it out for itself.

Certainly this would be considered a crown jewel of intelligence work; it's now entirely undone. The targets know about it, and we're on the edge of a diplomatic shitstorm of end-times proportions.

Snowden seems to believe that the United States is simply not permitted an intelligence service at all. Any intelligence service would, of course, ferret out a target nation's secrets; that's the whole point of it. But Snowden seems to believe that foreign nationals and foreign governments have a right to privacy that we are not permitted to breach.

America once shuttered its codebreaking offices, back in 1929. Explaining the decision, former Secretary of State Henry Stimson would later write in his memoirs the notoriously naïve principle: "Gentlemen do not read each other's mail."

And here we go again.

The National Security Agency has built a surveillance system capable of recording “100 percent” of a foreign country’s telephone calls, enabling the agency to rewind and review conversations as long as a month after they take place, according to people with direct knowledge of the effort and documents supplied by former contractor Edward Snowden.

A senior manager for the program compares it to a time machine — one that can replay the voices from any call without requiring that a person be identified in advance for surveillance.


The voice interception program, called MYSTIC, began in 2009. Its RETRO tool, short for “retrospective retrieval,” and related projects reached full capacity against the first target nation in 2011. Planning documents two years later anticipated similar operations elsewhere.

In the initial deployment, collection systems are recording “every single” conversation nationwide, storing billions of them in a 30-day rolling buffer that clears the oldest calls as new ones arrive, according to a classified summary.

The call buffer opens a door “into the past,” the summary says, enabling users to “retrieve audio of interest that was not tasked at the time of the original call.” Analysts listen to only a fraction of 1 percent of the calls, but the absolute numbers are high. Each month, they send millions of voice clippings, or “cuts,” for processing and long-term storage.

The Washington Post is withholding details that could give away which country was targeted, but 1) apparently Snowden is revealing it anyway, and 2) come on, we're talking about ten possible target countries. They can guess that they were omnibugged, or that they might be the next one to be omnibugged.

I've mentioned this before, but the intelligence agencies often pay corporations to develop spy tech for them. Much of the cutting edge stuff cannot be made in government labs; you need someone like Kodak to make a truly micro-camera or micro-battery for you.

At some point, the fruits of this government-funded engineering show up on the private market. Kodak may sit on a breakthrough tiny battery for six or eight years, to give the government spies the benefit of their coup, but at some point, they're going to want to put that on the market.

My point is that whatever was done here seems to involve data compression. The notion of capturing and storing so much data would have been pure science-fiction just ten years ago.

But we've gotten used to some of these science-fiction conveniences. Ten years ago, it was impossible to pipe high-definition movies to people on demand. Now it's not only commonplace, but it's entirely unremarkable. No one really pauses to consider how incredible it is that they can tell their phone to download the entire film Gravity in hi-def and not only can they do so, but they can actually watch the movie within seconds of pushing the button.

Anyway, point is, I'm thinking that some of these incredible strides in data compression might just have been partly funded by the NSA.

More: My guess for the targeted country is North Korea. It's a basket case that needs watching, and it's small and impoverished -- I imagine that phone traffic is pretty small, and what traffic it has will be disproportionately made up of military and civilian elites. People worth listening to.

Also: Person of Interest. One of the creators, Jonathan Nolan I think, observed that when they started the show, they assumed the premise was sci-fi and fantasy, mostly. But as the years have gone by, they've realized more and more that it's not sci-fi, not even near-term sci-fi. It's going on right now.

The remaining sci-fi premise (as opposed to a premise that is actually real) of Person of Interest is artificial intelligence.

I'm beginning to wonder about that. I'm starting to wonder if in ten years we're going to find out, "Oh yeah, we had the first AI in 2012."

digg this
posted by Ace at 01:45 PM

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