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.