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Understanding the NSA data mining

Posted by Richard on May 13, 2006

So, what’s really going on with the NSA and all those phone records? Let me illustrate how the program works using a hypothetical scenario: The US Army is torturing an al Qaeda member using the technique known as "invasion of space by a female." He succumbs to this inhumane treatment and spills the beans about the secret Yemeni phone number used by al Qaeda’s Assistant Director of North American Sleeper Cells.

The Army passes this information to the NSA, which starts looking for phone calls to or from the Yemeni number. Lo and behold, they discover calls from that number to a phone number in Dearborn, Michigan. In fact, there’s a pattern: there’s a call from the Yemeni number to the Dearborn number on the 6th of each month. So they start looking at the calls to and from the Dearborn number, and they find another pattern: on the 6th of each month, shortly after the call from Yemen, the Dearborn number always calls six other Dearborn numbers. Each of those 6 numbers calls 6 more and then orders several pizzas for delivery.

Since the NSA, like the rest of the Bush administration, is in the hands of fundamentalist Christian zealots, the 6-6-6 pattern freaks them out, and they rush off to a FISA judge. He grants access to information about those 36 Dearborn phone customers and a warrant to wiretap the pizza joint’s phone.

In just a few months, the FBI unravels a bio-terror plot involving bad mushrooms and targeting college students throughout the Midwest. Americans everywhere breathe a sigh of relief as the Dept. of Homeland Security lowers the alert level to mauve.

So that’s how the data mining of phone records might work. But you’re probably still confused about some aspects of it, so let me clear a few things up.

Thursday’s USA Today news story wasn’t news. If you read beyond the superficial, ignorant MSM reporting, you knew all this last December. The EFF filed their class-action lawsuit against AT&T in January, and it alleged exactly what the USA Today story breathlessly reported this week as breaking news. Since the story isn’t news, it must have some other purpose, such as undermining the nomination of Gen. Hayden and setting the stage for a media circus during the confirmation hearings next week.

This kind of NSA activity isn’t new. In fact, since this program collects only "externals" — who’s calling whom — it’s far less intrusive than the Clinton administration’s infamous Echelon program, which was specifically designed to collect "internals" — the actual conversations — and use them for a broad range of purposes far less noble than preventing airplanes from flying into buildings. In fact, NSA communications monitoring programs of various degrees of intrusiveness and nefariousness — mostly worse than what’s happening today — have existed under every administration, Republican and Democrat, at least as far back as Kennedy. If you want to grumble and fuss about that ignoble record, fine — I’ll help. But quit hyperventilating.

The information they’re looking at isn’t protected by the 4th Amendment. Back in the Ma Bell days, when phone calls were analog and connections were made in cross-point switches, the government could track who you called by installing a device called a pen register at the phone company switch. All it did was record the numbers you dialed (and back then, you really dialed them). In 1979, the Supreme Court ruled in Smith v. Maryland that Mr. Smith had no reasonable expectation of privacy regarding the phone numbers that he dialed, since he shared them with the phone company, which was free to use the information for billing and other purposes. The Court held that pen registers did not constitute a search, did not violate the 4th Amendment, and did not require a warrant. Today’s digital telephony network comes with the equivalent of pen registers on all the lines.

The information they’re looking at isn’t exactly private. The NSA is looking at phone company CDRs (call detail records). Phone companies use CDRs for billing, marketing, diagnostics, network analysis, and other purposes. Until privacy policy disclosures came along, they probably routinely sold your data to third parties for marketing purposes. Your cell phone records are for sale on the internet.

The information they’re looking at is an example of the dots they were criticized for not connecting. During the debate over reauthorization of the Patriot Act, Debra Burlingame, sister of American Airlines Flight 77 pilot Charles Burlingame III, pointed out an example that’s precisely on point (emphasis added):

NBC News aired an "exclusive" story in 2004 that dramatically recounted how al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar, the San Diego terrorists who would later hijack American Airlines flight 77 and fly it into the Pentagon, received more than a dozen calls from an al Qaeda "switchboard" inside Yemen where al-Mihdhar’s brother-in-law lived. The house received calls from Osama Bin Laden and relayed them to operatives around the world. Senior correspondent Lisa Myers told the shocking story of how, "The NSA had the actual phone number in the United States that the switchboard was calling, but didn’t deploy that equipment, fearing it would be accused of domestic spying." Back then, the NBC script didn’t describe it as "spying on Americans." Instead, it was called one of the "missed opportunities that could have saved 3,000 lives."

The Democratic Party may have fewer records in its searchable databases, but they undoubtedly contain more detailed personal information than the NSA’s. As Andrew McCarthy pointed out, political parties and candidates are doing far more data mining than the NSA:

Getting elected to Congress is hard work. It is rivaled only by every incumbent’s dearest preoccupation: remaining in congress. It takes untold hours of dedicated labor by highly motivated staffs and party organizations. It takes the expertise of outside experts. It takes meticulous research into the predilections of likely voters. And, most of all, it takes money. Lots of money.

In modern American politics, that requires a fair amount of data mining—the very same bane of our existence that currently has the usual suspects in Congress posturing about whether President Bush should merely be impeached or drawn-and-quartered at high noon.
. . .

So if we’re going to have a national conversation about government data mining, by all means let’s have it. But let’s not just put the administration and General Hayden under the microscope.

Let’s examine the practices of the opposition that purports to find warehousing information and tracking data about American citizens to be the death-knell of liberty.

Let’s take a hard look at the elected officials who are taking a hard look at the NSA.

Here are a just a few questions we might ask Democratic-party chairman Howard Dean and the members of the judiciary and intelligence committees currently grousing for the cameras:

  • Do you maintain databases of American citizens for fundraising purposes?
  • Do those databases contain names, addresses, telephone numbers, e-mail addresses, and other identifying information?
  • Do the databases contain information about the interests of the citizens who have been entered into them? About candidates or causes to which they have previously donated money?
  • Are those databases searchable? If so, what search criteria do you use to divide these American citizens into various categories?
  • Do you do targeted mailings for purposes of raising funds or pushing particular issues?
  • When you target, how do you know whom to target? That is, what kind of information do you maintain in your databases to guide you about which potential donors or voters might be fruitful to tap on which particular issues?
  • Do you trade information about American citizens with other politicians and organizations in the expectation that they might reciprocate and you all might mutually exploit the benefits?

The loudest liberal critics of the NSA are the biggest flaming hypocrites. As the Second Amendment Foundation pointed out, for years, these folks have pushed to compile more and more data about honest, peaceful gun owners, imposed burdensome record-keeping requirements, and promoted the systematic violation of gun owners’ privacy rights and civil liberties:

“The hypocrisy here is staggering,” said SAF founder Alan Gottlieb. “Feinstein, Schumer, Pelosi and others are having fits about the NSA’s possible invasion of privacy over telephone calls, but they’ve never had such reservations about mining gun trace data from federal law enforcement agencies, or demanding other invasive measures against law-abiding gun owners.
. . .

“Their concern over legal ‘fishing expeditions’ obviously does not extend to law-abiding Americans who own firearms, nor to the possibility that such digging could interfere with on-going criminal investigations,” Gottlieb stated. “Isn’t it ironic that Pelosi, Feinstein and Schumer are righteously indignant about probes that are supposed to be uncovering terrorist threats to our country, but they haven’t the slightest concern about digging into the lives of citizens who are no threat at all, and are guilty only of exercising a constitutional civil right?”

I just can’t get all that upset about the records of the phone numbers I’ve called. Not while I can grumble and fuss about this: any time they want, day or night, with no warrant or court order, BATFE agents can barge into a gun dealer’s house or shop, demand to see his records, and determine what guns I’ve bought.

And I’ve never talked to anybody in Yemen.

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6 Responses to “Understanding the NSA data mining”

  1. VRB said

    The scenario you are describing isn’t data mining. My understanding of what NSA is doing with those millions of records is using data analysis to determine where unusually high traffic occurs. They would probably find many clusters of such activity. Now, what filters are they going to use to determine which cluster to observe. If they had the kind of information of where they might look, it would not be necessary to have all communication records. I think they don’t exactly know what they are doing. I think its a scam. Your government is fighting terrorism.

  2. VRB said

    When I say, unusually high traffic, I mean traffic patterns that look like terrorist activity.

  3. Anonymous said

    This sort of social network analysis they are doing sounds good on paper, but only when you don’t consider all the ways that jihadists can easily fogg up the lense of Big Brother and stealthify their operations. I talk about a few such methods in an article on my blog, The International Libertarian, entitled [ “Why Social Network Analysis Doesn’t Catch Terrorists.”]

  4. Anonymous said

    Thanks for the comment, Mike. I fixed your link for you.

    Your argument might better be titled “Why Social Network Analysis Isn’t A Silver Bullet.” Sometimes the terrorists can and do effectively “stealthify.” But plots ”’were”’ foiled and terrorists are ”’locked up today”’ who were nabbed this way.

    And as Deb Burlingame’s recounting (quoted above) of the NBC story of a “missed opportunity” demonstrated, the failure to pursue such information can prove costly.

    As for your claim that the ”’intent”’ of these programs is not to detect terror groups, but to monitor dissidents — I’ve had little luck dissuading my fellow libertarians of such paranoia. But think about this: In the past 5 years, several terror cells in the U.S. have been broken up, several significant terror plots have been thwarted, and no major new attack has taken place.

    In the same 5 years, dissent has increased, demonstrations have been commonplace, and support for the President has fallen significantly.

    So, if the eeevilll Bushitler administration’s ”’intent”’ was to crush dissent, not thwart terror, why have they been so much more successful at the latter than the former?

  5. Anonymous said

    You are correct that SNA does catch stupid jihadists, but its always been the stupid jihadists that we catch because of their predeliction to screwing up and exposing themselves. The only advantage of SNA with them is that we are able to catch them quicker. The real threat to the US are not the stupid jihadists, but the ones who are sly like a fox. It is the genius jihadists who are going to be the ones to sneak dirty bombs or black market nukes, chem or bio weapons into the US or onto airliners, and kill enough people to make 9-11 look minor.

    As for my opinion of the intent of these programs, to monitor and infiltrate domestic opposition groups, I can tell you for a fact that I have received e-mails from within the FBI detailing how libertarian organizations I belong to are being monitored to this day, groups which owe no allegiance to any foreign influence. So that, at least, is not opinion.

    Bush has been unsuccessful at crushing dissent in the long term because he has eggregiously overstepped his bounds so many times that its become obvious to many, even people like myself who supported his original election, that 9-11 kicked him out of his original isolationist pragmatic libertarian-republicanism and his administration is firmly in the hands of proto-fascists who have demonstrated incompetence at their fascism, but don’t care so long as they run things.

    In the meantime, I’ve come up with a few other examples of how to stealth one’s sleeper cell, beyond hiding it within a mosque community or larger islamic organization. One in particular is to hide it within a telemarketing or polling organization: it allows the signal of terrorist communications within the flood of normal commercial activity. For instance, the best place IMHO to hide a sleeper cell communications center would be within the Zogby polling company.

  6. Anonymous said

    I’ve written another response to your latest comments on this, at IntLib:

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