Big Brother IS Watching You

A lot people are concerned that the NSA might be monitoring the international communications of US citizens. Some might even wonder if they personally have been affected by NSA snooping.

If you are one of these people, just relax. I can safely state that the NSA has, without a doubt, listened to or read virtually all the communications you sent overseas. They have to. Given the nature of modern telecommunications, it’s the only way they can fulfill their mission.

Most people’s idea of the technical aspects of the NSA’s work comes from the old practice of tapping analog phone lines. In the old days, tapping a phone meant attaching an electronic device directly to a specific physical wire that carried the conversations from a specific set of phones. With analog lines, the authorities could easily determine if they were listening to a conversation that their writ covered before they heard a word.

It doesn’t work that way anymore. All electronic communications, whether voice, email, webpages, bittorent, etc. all travel across the same physical networks while chopped up into sub-units called packets. By analogy, sending a communication via packets is like taking a hardcopy letter and cutting it up into several pieces. You then send those pieces separately to their destination. You would send one by the postal service, another by FedEX, another by UPS, another by your cousin Ted who’s flying there anyway, etc. At the destination, the individual pieces would be taped back together to form the original message.

Practically, this means you cannot know anything at all about a packet-based communication until you “trap” the packets associated with it and reconstruct the original communication to some degree. Simply monitoring a particular piece of hardware tells you nothing since the same hardware carries multiple communications simultaneously, and one of the strengths of packet-switched networks is that packets don’t have to travel the same path over the same hardware. To capture a particular communication, you must cast a wide net and capture all the associate packets and reassemble them.

This technological reality creates a legal paradox. In order to determine whether the NSA has the legal right to monitor a communication, the NSA must first read the communication. A day at the office in the NSA must be a long series of, “Not supposed to read that. Nor that, and I really shouldn’t have read that!” Supposedly, the NSA deals with this problem by having a 72-hour time window in which to decide if they have the legal right to monitor a particular communication. If not, then they erase the captured information.

The fact remains, however, that some person or (more likely) automated system does process the communications of large numbers of totally innocent US citizens, without any warrant, on a continual basis, and that they have been doing so for many, many years. We must simply trust that they have been scrupulous in deleting information they shouldn’t have access to.

I strongly suspect that the “spying on US citizens” in the current scandal will turn out to be NSA standard procedure that they have followed for nearly two decades. The only shift that could have occurred will be in the type of information they discard, not in what information they actually captured.

The bad news is that Big Brother is definitely watching you. The good news is that he probably isn’t paying much attention.

28 thoughts on “Big Brother IS Watching You”

  1. Actually, I believe the larger issue that has surfaced is the fact that the NSA has also been listening to calls within the US (state to state) and not just state-international as the president argued earlier this week.

  2. nykrindc,

    I had not heard that but just from the technological perspective separating out internal from external communications might also be impossible without capturing the communications themselves.

    Again, its not like the old days when your hardware differentiated communications from one another. The same landlines and satellites that carry internal communications also carry international ones.

    Remember that a FISA warrant is only required is a specific “US person” i.e. a citizen or legal resident alien is targeted. The NSA appears to be able to go “fishing” through random communications. Ironically, it appears that the wider the net they cast, the more compliant with the law they are.

  3. One point of clarification: ordinary phone calls still travel over a dedicated line as far as the nearest central office (or a neighborhood-level multiplexor box, in some cases) it would still be possible to tap an individual phone in the old-fashioned way..but the time taken to get to the physical location to install the tap would be prohibitive in many cases.

  4. David Foster,

    …ordinary phone calls still travel over a dedicated line as far as the nearest central office…”

    That’s true but that is nothing the NSA would be involved in. I don’t think the FBI uses anything below the switch level anymore.

    My intended point was that many people seem to assume that it is easy for the NSA to tell whether they are monitoring the communications of a US person or not because they think of the technical issues as being a scaled up version of an analog phone tap. They aren’t, They are entirely different.

  5. nykrindc – I can say for a near certainty that the US has been monitoring my communications with my relatives. You see, they’re in the NE and I’m near Chicago and some traffic between the Midwest and the NE ends up traveling through Canada. During its international stage, it’s fair game and has been for as long as I’ve ever heard of.

    Hawaiian communications to the mainland and Alaskan communications to the lower 48 are also likely to be similarly burdened. Finally, there’s the real possibility that certain phone conversations were internationally routed by accident or to gain commercial advantage.

    I believe AT&T had to pay a great big fine for clogging Canada’s networks with certain traffic that it should have been transmitting domestically. They did it to save money and burden a competitor but that act also would change the legal status of the conversations. Even when it’s not on purpose, it’s quite easy to foul up a router and send traffic down inappropriate paths. As long as you never have degraded service, you might not even notice that your traffic is going international. I once worked for a company that routed most of its frame relay traffic through Ohio by accident and likely did it for over a year before I twigged onto the problem and started inquiries.

  6. If Big Brother is watching me, he’s likely to fall asleep. That lets the rest of you who lead interesting lives off the hook.

  7. I have no doubt you are right. But there is a problem for the NSA that NASA also once faced: it is the AMOUNT of information you are talking about. In the case of the Space Agency, I once read somewhere that DATA confirming the existence of the Ozone Hole over Antarctica had been acquired and stored in NASA’s databases for TEN YEARS before anyone made enough sense of them to realize such a phenomenon existed. Even with highly automated systems (and what better systems are there than GOOGLE?) I would assume that the task of MAKING SENSE of all that captured communication — most of it innocent or uninteresting to the NSA — is by no means a trivial task. So I think we SHOULD worry about being tapped by the NSA, because it is our profligacy in utilizing the global bandwidth that prevents the NSA from doing its job. *cha-GRIN*

  8. Criminey, I was in Europe in ’82 and I knew then my calls back home were being monitored.

    Why is this such a suprise?

  9. That lets the rest of you who lead interesting lives off the hook.

    I never thought that my life would be considered interesting by anyone until I started to blog.

    Criminey, I was in Europe in ’82 and I knew then my calls back home were being monitored. Why is this such a suprise?

    You got me, Sandy.


  10. Sally and James,

    I don’t think anyone IS surprised that calls are being monitored. It’s the ‘without warrants’ part that bugs, especially since there is a 72 hour window after the fact in which to apply for warrants for monitoring that has already taken place. People’s trust in Bush was already low when this news broke. This gives the appearance not only of lawlessness in the face of a law that is already bending over backwards to accomodate the need for swift decisions but of a President that thinks that he can do whatever he wants with no oversight from other branches of government.

    I am neither surprised nor offended by the ordered surveillance within the parameters laid out by the White House–only international calls are being monitored and only of those being connected to Al Qaeda or some AQ connected group. The problem is, with no oversight, even from after the fact, how are we to know that the NSA is staying within the parameters. One doesn’t need to be a hard-core Libertarian to recognize the dangers of such a secret operation. Such monarchical power is the very reason that the framers put multiple checks on power into the Constitution. They could be monitoring ANYBODY for any reason to gather any information for any use short of use against in a court of law. Imagine the possibilities! The President’s opponents have and they don’t like what they see.

  11. I don’t like the monitoring of calls but anyone who thinks it’s new is either partisan or gullible. Libertarians were making a fuss about Echelon back in the mid-’90s, and the people who now accuse Bush of deceit didn’t care. It’s also obvious, and has been for years, that call monitoring has been going on for decades and during administrations of both parties. Everyone in Congress, and certainly the Democrats on the intelligence committees, had to know about it. (Its legality, and whether it makes sense as an intelligence-gathering strategy, are separate issues.)

  12. Jonathan,

    You’re right: this has been going on and such programs as ESCHELON are public knowledge–there have even been movies detailing the surveillance abilities available to the government–and there is political hypocrisy in much of the opposition’s outrage. I’m just saying that most of the outrage appears to be with it’s extrastatutory legality, not with the program’s mere existence.

  13. It is way too easy to get around any sort of wiretapping, even with roving tap orders. Do you realize how insecure most phone lines are at the network interface? In the suburbs, you can usually just walk up and tap in with a regular analog phone without entering the building. Try and wiretap that! Call using a cash phone card and it doesn’t even show up on your bill though your phone has been used as terrorist support infrastructure.

    The most effective way to tap (until the next technology escalation when IPv6 rolls out later this decade) is seize everything and computer analyze it for keywords. Once you’ve seized everything (ECHELON), what, exactly, is the point of a warrant when a phone number pops up in a terrorist’s phone. You’re just pulling from your own existing database. In other words, it’s not a new search requiring a warrant. It’s data mining existing information, connecting the dots work.

  14. A couple of observations. First, at some level of effectiveness data-mining becomes indistinguishable from an open search-warrant on everybody. The central assumptions of the courts that tolerate the routine monitoring of electronic communications by government seem to be that automatic snooping by machine is morally different than human snooping, and that the 4th Amendment does not apply to non-visibile electromagnetic transmissions. I don’t think it’s obvious that these assumptions are valid. Second, given the increasing competence of search firms like Google, I wonder if the government is considering contracting (or has already contracted) private-sector assistance.

  15. 72 hours v. new cell phone and # in minutes.

    Unless you have about 10 sitting judges available 24/7/365 on this, we’re going to lose.

    Laws haven’t kept up w/technology.

  16. Back in ’85 I went the Czechoslvak embassy for a visa. Upon my return a FBI guy came to my house and left his business card. It doesn’t bother me when the government actually does the job describe in the constitution.

  17. Assume that every electronic communication going out of the country and coming into the country may be monitored. Now assume that many of these messages may be of “>interest.” why are they of interest? Because of key words (use of dictionary, the same way filter on internet sites works to catch key words, ie, Jihad, CIA etc)…now the messages need reading and so the court (FISA) gives approval. But now Bush comes along and tells NSA he wants electronic stuff within the country monitored, ie, stuff not leaving the country and not coming in but intra-USA. FISA would say No. But FISA now ruled OUT. If those assumptions are right and herald a change from working procedures, then we have entered a new ball game!

    Why FISA” because a previous presient, Nixon, abused intel and this court instituted as check on such abuses.

    As for Mission of NSA, you simply do not know because their Mission statement can not be read because why? National Security!

  18. None of us wants an unfettered executive branch nor an unfettered government – this is probably as true of those who voted for Bush as those who didn’t, though they might trust him more. But discussions of these wiretaps & Reid’s boast “We’ve killed the Patriot Act” brought other thoughts to mind. As much as we sympathize with those in London & Madrid, Bali & Jordan, we remember that 9/11 has had no American sequel. The dog that doesn’t bark is easily forgotten; this has brought it to mind and we’ve wondered if perhaps, someone has been doing something right.

    Of course, it would help if their overreach didn’t include students who have lied defended by Senators who confuse Marx with Mao with militant Muslims. Taranto).

    Such confusion (and unwillingness to notice we have moved into the twenty-first century) makes those of us who want both security and liberty to be a bit hesitant to trust Bush’s opponents.

  19. Echoing Sandy P’s
    “I was in Europe in ’82 and I knew then my calls back home were being monitored.”

    In a late 80’s Mandarin class at the U. of Wa., Seattle, a student complained about China’s policy of opening incoming mail. My Chi-Lit professor, an levelheaded veteran of the foreign service, asked the class if they really thought the U.S. government didn’t read a private letter or two as well.

    He said, “Sorry to break the news to you, but they do.”
    You could hear a pin drop as the entire class digested this iconoclasm.

  20. From Lincoln’s letter about the Emancipation Proclamation sent to Albert Hodges on April 4, 1864:

    “By general law life and limb must be protected; yet often a limb must be amputated to save a life; but a life is never wisely given to save a limb.”

    Lincoln correctly sums up the futility of civil-libertarian puritanism at a time of war.
    h/t: Powerline Blog 12/26/05

  21. Citizen Y – Your civil liberties nightmare scenario makes for a fine fictional libretto but fails the test of practicality. First of all, slippery slopes don’t slip that fast. It’s unlikely that we’ll go down to the bottom in 3 years so it won’t be Bush. But what’s utterly fatal to the enterprise is that this form of data mining will likely break down for technology reasons over the next decade or so as IPv6 rolls out. It has encryption built in and once you’ve got one layer of encryption built into the IP stack, slipping in another one is much easier. Encrypted traffic no longer stands out so the spies, once again, must become more selective.

  22. Dumb headline of the year:
    Secret surveillance up since 9/11

    I should certainly hope so!

    This really is a war and real people have been killed in it. There are some people within our borders whose loyalties lie elsewhere. Remember those 5 “insurgents” in Lakawanna NY? Another member of their book club was blown up in Yemen when a Predator was used on an al Qaeda guy. If the information came from listening in on their phone calls, I’m not too upset.

  23. As long as the NSA remains an uncompromised intel gathering outfit, we remain relatively safe from intrusion. The trouble comes with passing off intel thus gained. That’s what makes the Paetriot Act so important and the precise terms of its re-authorization so cinsequnetual.

    For instance, what if drug war enforement gets allowed through the Patriot Act? Then NSA snoopers will be able to “held” FBI, state, and local authorities to track illegal drug activity. Mission creep is one danger the NSA snooping-domestic links present. In fact, if there is ony one danger, this (whether drugs or whatever) is it!

    So far, no major abuse of the Pat Act have surfaced. This is where Congress is right to sunset it and review it periodically. There have been rumors that Clinton used the vast NSA snooping apparaatus to gain competitive intel for US corporations; they then, it is said, rewarded Clinton with campaign donations.

    If the above case is true, then there is another form of abuse. But client politics, while clearly abusive, is far from civil liberties violations like smearing or suppressing dissent.

    The most likely form of “oversight” Congressional inquiry’s are likely to come up with are even more likely to mutate. This is another danger. For example, suppose Congress sees fit to have a “secret oversight” committee empowererd to police NSA activity. What are ther chances that ethic politicization of the kind Glenn Reynolds has sqewered won’t ensue?

    I’m very worried that any “solution” will be worse than the disease. Here’s hoping that Congress does no more than what has proved enough to work so far – tghe status quo.

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