Monday, February 27, 2006

Video: NSA Wiretapping Scandal Explained

Dave Edwards' Blog comes through with a really great video yet again.

Video: NSA Uses Private Firms for Massive Unchecked Domestic Surveillance


James Risen, who broke the NSA spying story for the New York Times, and Robert O'Harrow, Jr, the Washington Post's expert on data mining and privacy issues, are interviewed by Tim Russert.
Together, Risen and O'Harrow paint a picture of an enormous partnership between U.S. intelligence agencies and private data collection firms. Spying agencies like the NSA can leverage its' massive computing power to mine data collected by these private firms. The result is a mind-boggling domestic surveillance capability with access to nearly any information imaginable. Phone calls, email, video as well as finicial, criminal and other personal records can all be searched at the same time. The NSA's powerful computers can mine the data to find otherwise imperceptible links for profiling groups and individuals.

The picture I'm getting is this is most likely some kind of speech to text datamining program that monitors every international call or email into or out of the US (I'm not convinced at all it's limited to just int'l calls though) searching for keywords. When it triggers on a preset keyword, Risen uses the example "jihad", but it could be "bomb" or "Bush" or perhaps any common word in a language of interest such as Arabic or Farsi, or who knows what else the triggering criteria may be, it will then keep or flag a record of that call. Think about that for a minute.

At that point the computers tie together a listing or record of all of the numbers or email accounts that are connected to the original source that triggered the system and that info is probably only then poured over by a human. If it's found to be incriminating or suspicious I imagine the original phone or internet accounts, and perhaps all of the associated accounts that have called to or from the original accounts, would then be monitored more closely, also bringing into the picture whatever personal data on any all persons that can be tied to them. I'm jumping to a few conclusions based on what is infered here and what has been reported elsewhere, so I may be off a bit but watch the video and you'll most likely see I'm not too far off if at all.

My worry is this system sounds like it entails actually monitoring all calls, not just some already deemed to be suspicious in the first place, and that the system could be even used to trigger on more vague keywords that might pick up other conversations that are less likely to be terrorism related. Also, certain professions, such as academics and reporters, whose subject matter can involve terrorist groups or contacts in say Iraq for example, would be much more likely to have their conversations eavesdropped on, hence the suspicion that circulated that Christiane Amanpour may have been spied on by this system, and her husband, Jamie Rubin, was a Kerry campaign foreign policy advisor. Things that make you go hmmmm?

Just the fact that this system exists would have to have a chilling effect on the ability to carry out certain professions as sources may be much less willing to talk to them for fear of being monitored. Let's say for example, a friend or family member of a terrorist might have wanted to anonymously call a media outlet to warn of an impending attack, as has happened hundreds of times before, but now would not for fear that the conversation would lead right back to them.

Also. think of it this way. The only way the world may ever understand what drives people to terrorism and actually be able to bring an end to the war on terror someday, will surely only come from reporters and academics who are able to gain the trust of these individuals so they can accurately report what is really going on. While this system may be able to connect the dots, it also may create a greater divide between our very different worlds at the same time. There is a need for certain persons to be able to bridge the gap between these worlds or no peace will ever be realized, and this system blows up that bridge.

Also, if the program is allowed to continue without any oversight by the courts, it seems all too easy for the Executive Branch to use this system to eavesdrop on persons for purely political motives or for cases not related to terrorism at all. Certainly this system would be useful for cracking international and domestic drug cases, and perhaps certain types of white collar crime too. What other crimes could be caught by sniffing for keywords? Are we comfortable this? Is this Constitutional? In fact, it seems that the reason this program was leaked in the first place by concerned insiders seems to raise the possibility that this system may have been being misused in some way already.

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