High-Tech Eavesdropping: NSA Can Record a Whole Nation's Calls

Tuesday, 18 Mar 2014 01:43 PM

By Joe Battaglia

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The National Security Agency has developed a high-volume eavesdropping system capable of recording an entire country's telephone conversations with monthlong playback functionality.

A report in The Washington Post cited internal sources and documents leaked by former NSA contractor Eric Snowden in detailing the high-tech voice interception program.

According to the Post, MYSTIC, the surveillance system with its emblem featuring a wizard with a telephone-topped staff, was launched in 2009. The program's RETRO capabilities, short for "retrospective retrieval," were fully operational in the first target nation two years later. Planning documents anticipated similar deployment elsewhere beginning in 2013.

At the request of U.S. officials, the Post did not identify the countries where the system is currently in use or planned to be implemented.

The system works by initially casting a wide net, recording "every single" conversation within the target nation, then storing billions of those calls in a 30-day rolling buffer that erases the oldest calls as newer ones are saved. A summary of the program indicates that the buffer opens a door "into the past" by allowing users to "retrieve audio of interest that was not tasked at the time of the original call."

The significance of having 30 days of recorded conversations readily accessible is that it allows the NSA to instantaneously pull a history of a subject's movements, their associates and their plans. Just two decades ago, such information would only be obtainable if an American was in direct communication with a foreign intelligence target.

While officials acknowledge that capturing massive volumes of data in this fashion yields little that is relative to national security, it is on the off-chance that something valuable is obtained that makes MYSTIC worthwhile.

Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council, declined to comment on "specific alleged intelligence activities" in a statement. She did add that "new or emerging threats" are "often hidden within the large and complex system of modern global communications, and the United States must consequently collect signals intelligence in bulk in certain circumstances in order to identify these threats."

Vanee Vines, a spokeswoman for the NSA, wrote in an email statement that "continuous and selective reporting of specific techniques and tools used for legitimate U.S. foreign intelligence activities is highly detrimental to the national security of the United States and of our allies, and places at risk those we are sworn to protect."

Vines added that the work of NSA is being "strictly conducted under the rule of law."
RETRO and MYSTIC are carried out under Executive Order 12333, the traditional grant of presidential authority to intelligence agencies for operations outside the United States.

Documents leaked last year by Snowden suggested that the RETRO tool was built as a "unique one-off capability," but according to the Post, the 2013 secret intelligence budget contained appropriations for deployment in five more countries with a sixth that was expected to be operational by October 2013.

In January, President Barack Obama instructed the NSA and other agencies that bulk-data gathering may be used only to collect intelligence on one of six specified threats, including nuclear proliferation and terrorism. The directive also stated that limits on bulk collection "do not apply to signals intelligence data that is temporarily acquired to facilitate targeted collection."

There have been signs that the program has been limited by the NSA's capacity to store and transmit the large voice files procured by MYSTIC.

While analysts listen to less than 1 percent of the calls recorded, each month they send millions of voice clippings to be processed for long-term storage. One official close to the program told The Post that after just one year, the program, "long since reached the point where it was collecting and sending home far more than the bandwidth could handle."

But that could soon change. In order to facilitate the storage of vast quantities of data obtained across all the NSA's surveillance programs, it is progressing on the development of cloud-based storage systems and a colossal "mission data repository" in Utah, according to an overview briefing.

Spokesmen for the NSA and the Office of Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. declined to confirm or deny these expansion plans.


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