May 11 2006

NSA Phone Pattern Analysis Update

As with most things having to do with computers and national security I struggle with what to discuss because just discussing what is possibly happening is feeding information to the terrorists. The terrorists are not stupid, they are just handicapped by ignorance. So I have decided to not do more than acknowledge the original reporting on this does seem to describe a tangential effort than that exposed with the FISA mess – but is still related.

Apparently the NSA is not listening in or reviewing the discussions, not doing keyword searches. They are not even getting names and addresses. What they are doing is assessing a subset of phone numbers (10 of millions of Americans is a fraction of Americans and their phone numbers since most of us have 2-3 numbers between home, office and mobile) so therefore this is based on some kind of lead. I had keyed in on the fact this was not all numbers to assume some of these are related to warrants and the records regarding those warrants. I still think that is the case. For every target you can get 100 ‘contacts’ with that target.

I suspect they can determine, based on patterns, whether a certain number is of interest (or confirm a number is of interest if it is passed to them by the overseas monitoring or the FBI). I would also wager that to take a number and apply a name requires a court order. But once that name and number hit a threshold, they go from lead to target through another warrant.

The last leak from Risen in the NY Times last fall to tip off terrorists was about targets overseas being monitored and US entities being swept up in those surveillances when the came into contact with the overseas target. The leads back to the US are just that – leads. So what you can do is investigate the leads. Warranted surveillance produce leads too. A suspected terrorist in the US who has been under warranted (FISA) surveillance will generate a lot of leads.

It seems one way to assess the leads is to do pattern analysis on phone numbers connected to known targets. That is why the number of phone records is a fraction of all US phone numbers. This could be the result of a lead coming from the NSA program monitoring terrorists, or leads from warranted surveillance.

That much is clear, the two topics are slightly different, and therefore this second leak is particularly egregious. While I am adjusting my view on the specific details, I am not changing my position this was an incredibly dangerous leak. The details about Qwest not participating was horrendous and put Qwest and its customers in a terrible situation. Contrary to the liberal mutterings I am not pushing on Qwest one way or the other. The leak is what is disturbing. And Qwest could pay a terrible price.
I know enough right now to move all communications I want hidden from federal scrutiny to Qwest – ASAP. I also know now that running an operation which I want undetected by the Feds has a better chance of being hidden in the Qwest service area.

So now terrorists know not to communicate to their overseas handlers and to avoid certain services. And they should know much more, which I will not go into in case they don’t. Someone still should go to jail for this.

10 responses so far

10 Responses to “NSA Phone Pattern Analysis Update”

  1. evolution says:

    nsa: just stick it back in the microwave…

    It seems the NSA has been collecting data on the phone calls of millions of Americans, such as the numbers called and call duration — but not the calls’ contents — for some time now, and storing them in a massive database.
    It appears …

  2. Decision '08 says:

    NSA Policy To Be Unveiled…

    Catchy headline, eh? Who’s making the big move – the Democratic leadership? Breakaway Republicans? The Bush Administration?
    Also, no, no, and no – just little ol’ me. I’ve had some thoughts percolating in my ever-expanding brain (…

  3. Et Tu, USA Today?…

    Like a wannabe standing by and hoping to be noticed, the USA Today copies the cool kids’ leaking national security information style, and adds to the information previously published by the NY Times.The National Security Agency has been secretly colle…

  4. ReidBlog says:

    …And another thing……

    …The question is, do you supporters of domestic data mining see a limit? Or is it “anything goes” when it comes to this president, and his “war on terror?”…

  5. Kenny Bania says:

    This story is a rehash. It’s “old news”, given new life by the dying dinosaur liberal press just in time for the Hayden hearings. The timing is not a coincidence. They do stuff like this all the time.

  6. crosspatch says:

    Think about it … NSA has database of millions of phone numbers!

    Well so do large telemarketing companies. It doesn’t bother me for NSA to have a phone book that lists every single telephone in the country. You can assemble one yourself for well over 90% of all the phones in this country. It’s called The White Pages. You can obtain them from every telco electronically and put them all into a database if you want.

    In fact, obtaining people’s phone bills is easier than it seems too. But even so, if NSA is looking at the calls being made by people here in this country who are talking to terrorists overseas, I have absolutely ZERO issue with it. If they weren’t looking into it, I would be upset.

  7. crosspatch says:

    I heard something on a talk radio show that refreshed my memory about this kind of data. I remembered that telephone billing information (who called who and when) is NOT private information. The Supreme Court ruled on that a long time ago. It is like log files. People do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy concerning log files. This would be logs from the phone company concerning who called who, logs from an ISP concerning who emailed who, or logs on a web server showing who viewed what. One does have an expectation that the conversation will be private, but not the phone company logs that show which phone number dialed another and when. That information can be obtained without warrant. In some cases a provider may not provide the information without a court order, but that is much easier to obtain than a wiretap warrant. It basically amounts to the government showing that what they are requesting is “pen register” information, which is not considered private, and they get the order.

    You have no more right to privacy on telephone logs than you do for logs on a web server and they show pretty much the same kind of information. They show which address connected to which other address and when. In telco jargon, a phone number is also called an address.

    What the paper has tried to do in this case is to make a subtle connection in people’s minds between addressing information and content but this very issue has long been decided by the Supreme Court. Pen register information is called that, by the way, because of the way old fashioned telephone switches recorded billing information. They used mechanical switches and a “pen register” made a recording of the originating phone number and each digit dialed when placing a call so the call could be billed.

    This information does not involve listening for a conversation. It is akin to noting that a car with a certain license number entered a parking lot at one time and left another. It doesn’t prove who placed the call or what was said, it only says that phone was in use and dialed some other number. Many people can get access to your billing information. The content of those calls is, however, protected. They can not listen to a fully domestic call without a warrant.

    This isn’t even news. It was news several years ago. It isn’t even really “leaking” anything since the entire argument was already gone over years ago. Basically, it’s nothing. It isn’t even whistle blowing. All it is, is button pushing.

  8. fredriknyman says:

    Wanna bet that the NSA is Very Interested in the records of anyone who has recently switched carriers to Qwest? 🙂

  9. crosspatch says:

    Maybe. Powerline has an item on the subject. The law is pretty clear. The telco can release billing logs to anyone they want at any time they want.

  10. MerlinOS2 says:

    Since overall poll numbers show support for the program, some of the over the top chicken little reporting by the MSM is only lessening their stature in the eyes of the viewers.