Steve Elwart, P.E., Ph.D., is the executive research analyst with the Koinonia Institute and a subject matter expert for the Department of Homeland Security. He can be contacted at email@example.com.More ↓Less ↑
Recent admonitions from a former FBI counterterrorism agent have provided a glimpse into just how invasive government-surveillance activities could be.
But what, actually, are those activities?
In the aftermath of the Boston Marathon terror bombing, federal officials not only investigated the movements of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and his brother Tamerlan, but also those around them.
One of those who came under scrutiny was Katherine Russell, the 24-year-old American widow of the now deceased bombing suspect, Tamerlan Tsarnaev.
Law-enforcement sources say Russell placed a phone call to her husband after authorities released pictures identifying him as a suspect in the bombings and speculation is revolving around just what was said between the two.
During the course of the interview, one of the guests, former FBI counterterrorism expert, Tim Clemente, made a startling declaration:
BURNETT: “Tim, is there any way, obviously, there is a voice mail they can try to get the phone companies to give that up at this point, but it’s not a voice mail. It’s just a conversation. There’s no way they actually can find out what happened, right, unless she tells them?”
CLEMENTE: “No, there is a way. We certainly have ways in national security investigations to find out exactly what was said in that conversation. It’s not necessarily something that the FBI is going to want to present in court, but it may help lead the investigation and/or lead to questioning of her. We certainly can find that out.”
Startled, Burnet then asked:
BURNETT: “So they can actually get that? People are saying, look, that is pretty incredible, what you’re saying.”
At this point the second unnamed guest said, “No, welcome to America. All of that stuff is being captured as we speak whether we know it or like it or not.”
This exchange set off an Internet firestorm of accusations and suppositions over just how far the government can reach into the private conversations of individuals.
The following day, Clemente returned to CNN and doubled down on his previous statement and said, “there’s a way to look at digital communications in the past” and that “no digital communication is secure.”
Clemente indicated that this type of surveillance can’t be used in a criminal investigation but is used in “major terrorism investigations or counterintelligence investigations.”
These statements had private analysts wondering just how much of our communications are being captured by the government and kept for future analysis.
Some contend that all digital communications: telephone calls, emails, online chats, file transfers, social media postings to name only a few, are being captured.
There have been indications that data is being captured for years now.
The ECHELON System is a global network of computers that automatically searches through millions of intercepted messages for pre-programmed keywords or fax, telex and e-mail addresses. The system is designed for intercepting communications by the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
Having its origin in World War II and refined by the National Security Agency (NSA), ECHELON was ostensibly designed to intercept and monitor any and all foreign digital communication carried over the world’s telecommunications networks. ECHELON potentially intercepts every communication between parties communicating anywhere in the world.
(Assurances by the NSA that the U.S. would not monitor domestic communications could be finessed by the NSA requesting a foreign signal intelligence (SIGINT) service, such as Great Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) do the monitoring in the U.S. for them).
An investigation of ECHELON by the European Union concluded by condemning the operation of the spy network, but doing little else, leaving analysts to wonder if the EU is looking at building their own ECHELON-like system.
Although Echelon is rumored to be the world’s largest surveillance network, it is not the only one. China, Russia, and France operate worldwide surveillance networks. Switzerland, Denmark, and the Netherlands have also constructed small, Echelon-like monitoring stations to eavesdrop on civil satellite communications as well.
As digital communication became more sophisticated, other communication infrastructures were brought into the SIGINT network.
Mark Klein, a retired AT&T technician revealed the collaboration between AT&T and the NSA in acquiring both domestic and foreign electronic transmissions for later analysis. Having hands-on responsibility for part of AT&T network, Klein was in a unique position to address the level of AT&T’s collaboration with the NSA.
Klein revealed that he had documents that showed the NSA had access to e-mail and metadata (the “data about data”) from more than a dozen telecommunications providers.
According to an article in the Washington Post, Klein said that the NSA built a special room to intercept data traveling through AT&T transmission lines. Some of the largest data links were being captured at a rate of 2.5 gigabits of data per second, the equivalent of 50,000 web pages per second.
Klein said that “the NSA set up a system that vacuumed up Internet and phone-call data from ordinary Americans with the cooperation of AT&T” and that “contrary to the government’s depiction of its surveillance program as aimed at overseas terrorists . . . much of the data sent through AT&T to the NSA was purely domestic.”
The documents in Klein’s possession listed 16 entities that were having digital data gathered by the NSA, among them, Global Crossing, UUNet (now owned by Verizon), Level 3 Communications, and other, more familiar companies such as Sprint and Qwest.
The documentation Klein amassed, along with his eyewitness testimony, form the basis of one of the first lawsuits filed against the telecoms. The case, Jewel v. NSA, originally was filed in 2009 and is currently working its way through the courts. The case was heard by the federal district court in San Francisco on December 14, 2012, and is currently under review.
The Klein revelation can give credence to statement that “no digital communication is secure”.
NSA cryptologist-mathematician and agency whistleblower William Binney has also gone on record as saying he believed domestic surveillance has become even more expansive under President Obama than President George W. Bush. The 40-year intelligence veteran estimated the NSA has assembled 20 trillion “transactions” – phone calls, emails and other forms of data – from Americans.
Much of this information is gathered by the NSA under Section 215 of the Patriot Act. The so-called “library records” provision of the act allows the federal government to get a secret court order for any records or other “tangible things” by certifying merely that they are “sought for” an authorized counter-intelligence, which the Justice Department says is the equivalent of “relevant to.”
Under this section of the Patriot Act, the NSA has stored over 1.7 billion e-mails, phone calls and other types of communications every day. Over the years, Binney asserts that the US government has “assembled on the order of 20 trillion transactions about U.S. citizens with other U.S. citizens” (which counts only communications transactions and not financial and other transactions), and that “the data that’s being assembled is about everybody. And from that data, then they can target anyone they want.”
Even with the surveillance capabilities available to agencies such as the NSA, some still doubt that every conversation is being stored.
Since the actual methods of surveillance are highly classified, much is left to conjecture. Gathering all the information as being described above is a daunting, but not impossible, task.
The telecom industry is very fragmented with many modes of product delivery. If an agency is targeting a specific individual, that fragmentation could make intercepting all the communications problematic.
POTS (Plain Old Telephone Service), land lines, mobile phones, Voice over IP (VoIP) services such as Skyp)e, combined with encryption services makes tracking all of a person’s communications difficult.
The volume of data is also daunting. While surveillance agencies are gathering huge amounts of data, the total information flow is even bigger. The amount of data is so large; it has been giving its own term, “Big Data.” Big Data is a collection of data so large and complex that it becomes difficult to process due to its sheer volume.
According to the latest market study by ABI Research, in 2011, the global annual telecom data traffic volume amounted to almost 8,000 petabytes (eight billion gigabytes). That volume is estimated to exceed 60,000 petabytes in 2016 – over seven times more than in 2011.
Intelligence analysts are also challenged. The people who analyze the data and phone conversations obtained by foreign and domestic spying disseminate their analyses by publishing 50,000 intelligence reports each year – a volume so large that many are routinely ignored.
So with all this information, another problem arises – where do you put it all?
Despite protestations to the contrary, the new data “spy center” being constructed 25 miles south of Salt Lake City, may be able to accommodate it, but the exact configuration of the center is classified.
Some suggest that part of the size problem can be alleviated through speech-to-text technology, but the current state of that technology is still spotty and the subtleties of the phone conversation, such as voice inflection, is lost in the transcription.
What can be said with a large degree of confidence is that all of a person’s phone calls, e-mails and all other digital transmissions can be gathered if that person is being targeted. The most recent admission coming out of the Obama administration that they used the IRS to target conservative people and groups only proves that the administration or any administration will target people for additional scrutiny if it suits their purposes.
Targeting may be the key to Clemente’s comment about going back to find out exactly what was said in the conversation between Katherine Russell and her husband.
It recently came to light that Russian intelligence operative intercepted a 2011 phone call between the Tsarnaev brothers’ mother, living in the Republic of Dagestan, and one of her sons in which they reportedly mentioned “jihad.” As a result, Russia sent an alert to the FBI.,
The alert said that the text messages they intercepted suggested Tsarnaev was interested in joining militant Islamic groups that Russia believes were responsible for attacks in the Caucasus region near where the family lives.
But because of distrust between the two countries, further requests for information from the United States did not elicit a response from Russia. It may have been enough, however, to bring the family’s communications under closer scrutiny with their phone conversations being given special attention.
Even if government agencies do not currently have the capability of gathering every bit of information about every person in the country, they’ll keep trying until technology makes the dream a reality.