Monday, May 6, 2013

Americans: Your Government Records And Maintains Access To All Your Phone Calls, Emails, Etc.

According to Glenn Greenwald, writing in The Guardian on May 4 (you know it is unlikely he could publish this in a major American print news source; it is amazing that CNN broadcast the material), the answer is yes:
The real capabilities and behavior of the US surveillance state are almost entirely unknown to the American public because, like most things of significance done by the US government, it operates behind an impenetrable wall of secrecy. But a seemingly spontaneous admission this week by a former FBI counterterrorism agent provides a rather startling acknowledgment of just how vast and invasive these surveillance activities are.

Over the past couple days, cable news tabloid shows such as CNN's Out Front with Erin Burnett have been excitingly focused on the possible involvement in the Boston Marathon attack of Katherine Russell, the 24-year-old American widow of the deceased suspect, Tamerlan Tsarnaev. As part of their relentless stream of leaks uncritically disseminated by our Adversarial Press Corps, anonymous government officials are claiming that they are now focused on telephone calls between Russell and Tsarnaev that took place both before and after the attack to determine if she had prior knowledge of the plot or participated in any way.

On Wednesday night, Burnett interviewed Tim Clemente, a former FBI counterterrorism agent, about whether the FBI would be able to discover the contents of past telephone conversations between the two. He quite clearly insisted that they could:
... [quote from interview with Clemente]
"All of that stuff" - meaning every telephone conversation Americans have with one another on US soil, with or without a search warrant - "is being captured as we speak".

On Thursday night, Clemente again appeared on CNN, this time with host Carol Costello, and she asked him about those remarks. He reiterated what he said the night before but added expressly that "all digital communications in the past" are recorded and stored:
... [video]
(Bolds mine. Please read the Clemente quotation in the Guardian column.)

According to the agent, all of your digitally transmitted conversations with your spouse... these days, that's effectively all of them... are recorded, and "out there," accessible to federal law enforcement officials, without a warrant. The one law they emphatically aren't enforcing is the Fourth Amendment.

This claim is not vague, unattributed "sources say" stuff. The agent has a name, and a journalist with any diligence... and a spine... could, and should, check out the quotation.

As Greenwald indicates later in the column, this is not the first indication of such massive government warehousing of American citizens' communications (consider the WaPo revelations in 2010)... and this is the stuff of which totalitarian governments are made (never forget Saudi Arabia's banning of BlackBerrys because they had no government "back door" in their encryption). Every conversation you have with your spouse, the NSA (at least) records and archives it.

Welcome to 1984. We've arrived... three decades late, but we're there now.

AFTERTHOUGHT: as if we weren't violating enough of our centuries‑old legal traditions, Katherine Russell is effectively being coerced to testify against her husband. Does that personalize matters for you a bit more clearly?


  1. This is not a surprise to those of us that worked in the intelligence community in the past. All broadcast radio(including TV and microwave) was recorded and stored on magnetic tape from the late sixties forward. I know because I worked on the equipment that did it. You could go back in time and recreate any radio, television, telephone(microwave) information. It is logical to assume that this capability was extended to newer communications like the internet and digital phone systems. If I was the government and had the capability I probably would.

    1. fallenmonk, would you require a warrant to access communications among individuals? or has the whole notion of one's private business vanished completely? Recording TV/radio shows is not the same matter in principle as recording conversations. TV and radio are intended as broadcast media; there is no expectation of privacy regarding their content.

      You have more insight into the minds that created this (IMHO) monstrosity than most of us. Can you make the mindset comprehensible to the rest of us? Do people do this out of fear of conspiracies? out of simple CYA? out of a kind of expanded voyeurism? out of fascination for the technology, and never mind the human consequences?

      Over a period of decades I have observed that powers go from being forbidden, to being permitted only to the government, and eventually to being routinely exercised by any large entity, e.g., a major corporation. We're pretty far along that path w.r.t. privacy, and as a consequence, privacy is almost gone. It might mean something to me if I could understand why it has to be destroyed.

  2. The thing is the nature of the network - it is there whether you want it or not, and if you try to filter it at the time of collection you might miss some of what you do want. Everything was collected, then sorted to extract what was wanted.

    In the old days unless a tape contained something of major significance, it was degaussed to be re-used. We didn't keep stuff forever because it would have been too expensive. These days they seem to want to keep every thing forever, which makes finding anything significant a major problem. They are burying themselves in useless dross. Tamerlan Tsarnaev was one of 700,000 names on the list, so it isn't surprising no one noticed him. Being on the list is the same as having your name in the San Diego phone book. They can't keep track of the FBI 10 Most Wanted, but they think it's important to have 700,000 names on a list.

    As far as warrants go, they would be directed to the phone company, not the individual.

    They are doing it to CYA after the fact, when it's useless. The PATRIOT Act needs to be repealed - the sooner, the better.

    1. Bryan, I keep hoping they'll collect my rhymes, but more likely they'll just erase those files. After all, "What's Seuss for degauss..."

  3. Bryan, I had a long technical article but Google Chrome crashed. Needless to say, they're *still* doing basically what you hypothesize -- i.e., only keeping a few weeks of voice recordings at best in a round-robin database where the newest data overwrites the oldest data. 2,000 hours of GSM-encoded voice takes 500 megabytes. You do the math past that point, the U.S. power grid doesn't have sufficient capacity to power sufficient hard drives to store probably 200,000,000,000 hours of voice calls per year for multiple years. (That's 200 billion, based on 2,000 hours of voice calls per year per the 100 million or so people who talk a lot on the phone).

    My guess is that they do keep the machine transcriptions for longer than that, as well as keeping the calls that the robots tag for a while longer in case they turn out to be... interesting. It's pretty clear from leaked info that they're trolling all calls and sending them through the machines to create transcriptions and look for keywords. On the other hand, machine transcriptions of voice calls are still hilariously bad (Google probably has better technology than the NSA and even their voice transcriptions turn hilarious if the person leaving voicemail has the least bit of an accent), and clearly would never be admissible in court, so their utility is limited... my guess is that the PIN register data will be far more interesting so you can figure out who the guy's been talking to for the past couple of years, and that, at least, is kept for at least two years by the phone companies for their own purposes.

    Oh yeah, as far as "digital communications", the reporter misunderstood or deliberately exaggerated what he heard (not surprising, of the multiple times I've been interviewed by reporters, only one reporter didn't exaggerate or misquote me to fit his/her agenda -- and that reporter worked for a financial publication). By "digital communications" the spook didn't mean digital voice calls, he meant emails and IM's as well as whatever the Googlebot trawls (there are connections there, my friend, but I can't prove them). From the FBI/NSA's point of view, a voice call is a voice call, whether digital or analog doesn't matter (but they're all digital nowadays anyhow, even POTS is digital once it hits the local switch and gets flipped to fiber). It takes the same amount of technology to decode it regardless of whether it originated at an old-fashioned black dial phone or a new-fangled GSM mobile phone. Voice is a PITA, in the end, regardless of how it's represented in the electrons of a system.



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