NSA

The NSA is Recording and Storing Every Single Phone Call in a Foreign Country

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Via The Washington Post

The National Security Agency (NSA) has built and is apparently currently operating a program that allows them to capture and review every single phone call made inside a foreign country, according to a new report from The Washington Post based on documents supplied by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. 

Basically, the NSA is DVRing an entire country's worth of phone conversations. From the Post story:

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.

Right now, the program is operational in at least one country. Yet although it was built with collection from only one foreign nation in mind, the agency has contemplated using it on other nations as well. It's possible, in fact, that the program has expanded beyond its initial target already:

Some of the documents provided by Snowden suggest that high-volume eavesdropping may soon be extended to other countries, if it has not been already. The RETRO tool was built three years ago as a "unique one-off capability," but last year's secret intelligence budget named five more countries for which the MYSTIC program provides "comprehensive metadata access and content," with a sixth expected to be in place by last October.

There's no filtering mechanism whatsoever. Any extraneous material that's collected is excused as "incidental" collection, including the phone calls of any Americans who happen to be in the country, or who happen to be calling someone who is located there.

The NSA isn't the only U.S. intelligence organization to have access to material collected through the program, although the Post doesn't specify which other agencies can get the data, or under what conditions. 

And because the target is foreign, the program is only loosely bound by legal restrictions:

Experts say there is not much legislation that governs overseas intelligence work.

"Much of the U.S. government's intelligence collection is not regulated by any statute passed by Congress," said Timothy H. Edgar, the former director of privacy and civil liberties on Obama's national security staff. "There's a lot of focus on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which is understandable, but that's only a slice of what the intelligence community does."

All surveillance must be properly authorized for a legitimate intelligence purpose, he said, but that "still leaves a gap for activities that otherwise basically aren't regulated by law because they're not covered by FISA."

So, what we've got is a highly secret, hugely sweeping program that, despite being intended for just one target, has either already been expanded or is about to be, and that shares information with other unnamed agencies, and that operates without much law to govern its use. 

Also, the logo is a wizard. With a magic staff. With a phone on the end of it. So there's that. 

NEXT: Gene Healy: Three Years After US Intervention, Libya's an Even Bigger Disaster

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  1. I really don’t understand how this could be possible without a lot of cooperation from the country’s phone carriers.

    1. Cooperation or “cooperation”?

      1. Nice phone company you got there, be a shame if anything happened to it…

    2. For small countries, there are bottlenecks. Tap them and you get it close to it all.

      And by small, I mean Germany sized. (At least 15 years ago, there were bottlenecks.)

  2. It’s not, and I’ve been trying to say that for the last 10 minutes, but the goddamned squirrels are pissing all over the place.

    The only way they could do this is with direct access to trunk lines and/or internal phone company servers.

    1. The only way they could do this is with direct access to trunk lines and/or internal phone company servers.

      Would it be out of the realm of possibility that the NSA has figured out how to hack into phone company servers without being detected?

      Maybe the squirrels belong to the NSA

      1. Would it be out of the realm of possibility that the NSA has figured out how to hack into phone company servers without being detected?

        No, not on this scale.

        Yes, anyone could hack into a server, look around and leave quietly and not be detected. But to be recording every phone call in any western country with a well-developed phone system for any ongoing period of time would be seen and/or detected.

        1. This was my thought.

        2. But to be recording every phone call in any western country…

          But, that isn’t the claim

  3. So, what we’ve got is a highly secret, hugely sweeping program that, despite being intended for just one target, has either already been expanded or is about to be, and that shares information with other unnamed agencies, and that operates without much law to govern its use.

    A but the rubber stamp FISA court is law. Even with Constitutional law you’re hoping the government will enforce the law on itself. Statutory law is arbitrary and obsolete.

  4. The NSA is Recording and Storing Every Single Phone Call in a Foreign Country

    Which foreign country is that? I’m guessing it’s the United States.

  5. I’ll bet it’s North Korea. They only have 6 phones in the country.

  6. Here is where I wish Snowden would shut-the-fuck-up. It is the job of the NSA to gather intelligence on foreign countries. Disclosing this kind of information really is treason – and stupid.

    This lets the NSA supporters attack Snowden himself instead of answering questions about domestic surveillance and violating our Constitutional rights.

    Stick to talking about domestic surveillance.

    1. This lets the NSA supporters attack Snowden himself instead of answering questions about domestic surveillance and violating our Constitutional rights.

      Ironic that one sentence earlier you were calling him a stupid traitor. You must have a real hardon for immoral surveillance.

      1. No, I called releasing information about foreign intelligence gathering treason.

        Congress should have a debate on exactly how much foreign surveillance we need and set the CIA and NSA budgets appropriately. But, it shouldn’t be done by exposing operations for the world to see.

        1. And how is this “debate” supposed to occur while the NSA and CIA lie about the existence of these programs and shield them from Congressional oversight?

      2. Oh so now it’s morality that’s the issue? I thought it was a constitutionality thing, which the NSA isn’t violating here.

        1. Did it ever occur to you that *gasp* it could be both?

          1. Yes – but due to his situation and location, Snowden is in the wrong place to make the moral argument.

            1. What situation is that? Is Snowden carrying out his own surveillance programs?

            2. Government by definition is immoral.

              Or else your attitude is “Those poor old governments need all the help they can get.”

  7. the logo is a wizard. With a magic staff. With a phone on the end of it.

    Just think, they actually paid someone money to do that. Whose money? You know.

  8. Well the best we can hope for is that they, NSA CiA and others have so much info it is useless to them a prime example would be the Boston Bombers. After Russia told the FBI about them multiple times about how they were a danger the FBI still couldn’t stop them. Based on that i doubt they can actually start using info to black mail individuals. Unless of course their goal is not to stop terrorist and just blackmail politicians and harass groups that disagree with them.

  9. The NSA needs to hire some better graphic artists. I mean, if they’re going to violate our privacy on a massive scale I don’t think it’s asking too much that their logos not look like rejected Magic: The Gathering illustrations.

    OT: It took ~12 tries to get this fucking comment to post. God reason sucks lately. Keep having to reload, logout and back in, etc. just to get to post a motherfucking comment. Fuck!

  10. This is obviously grounds for any country targeted to sever diplomatic relations with the USA and expel all US nationals.

    -jcr

  11. Which foreign country? Come on… GIVE US A HINT!!!!

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