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  • No Wires to Tap

    Posted by Shannon Love on December 3rd, 2007 (All posts by )

    Instapundit links to an article by Melanie Scarborough that purports to show that either a telecom engineer or the Bush administration is lying about the domestic “wiretapping” with the clear implication that Bush is the liar.

    Unfortunately, her premise is based on a complete misunderstanding of how modern telecommunication works. Both parties are telling the truth.

    The problem is that most people don’t understand that there are no longer any wires to tap. Regardless of how information originates — voice, texting, web pages, etc. — modern packet-switched networks carry them all in the same form down the same physical infrastructure. Each individual communication gets broken up into individual packets and tossed out onto the net to make its way independently to its destination. In order to monitor any single communication, one must capture the entire packet stream and then pick out the individual packets of interest.

    Worse, in order for the agency to determine if it has the legal authority to read a communication, it must first assemble and read the communication to determine exactly where it originated, who sent it to whom and whether it concerns matters of national security. In other words, to know if they can legally read the communication, they must first read the communication.

    Most of the wiretapping hysteria results from people conceiving of communications technology as it existed 40 years ago, when the basics of wiretapping law were laid down. They still imagine that each communication travels down its own dedicated wire and that to monitor a communication one must merely physically monitor that one wire. From this ignorant supposition, capturing every packet in the stream in order to search for the legally accessible ones looks like mass-monitoring. Its not.

    Modern technology leaves us with the choice of examining every communication flowing through the network or examining none. It’s just that simple.

    Journalists, activists and lawyers really need to catch up with the times.


    14 Responses to “No Wires to Tap”

    1. josepdh hill Says:

      What you say is of interest but leaves unsaid a simple fact: what “right” was given NSA to examine domestic packets? In fact NSA does stuff it had not done when telecomunications did not use cyberspace and at that time they did not “tap” individual names listed in some log they had. Now of course you could check this by going to NSA home page, where they list what they are and are not allowed to do. The problem is that you can not read that because it is classified and not available to the public. Butif you read what NSA has already released some time ago in to the public domian (you need to do searches for this with Google etc), you will discover that it ws in fact NSA that suggested to the incoming president Bush that more domestic spying should be done…and that document was issued prior to 9/11. NSA was not in the game of domestic spying. Read uyp on what they had been empowered to do and what they currently do and you will note a difference.

    2. David Foster Says:

      Joseph…different issue. Although the question of “what they are empowered to do” is obviously a very important one, the key pont here is that this reporter is explicitly accusing somebody of lying, and should not be doing this without being very sure she knows what she is talking about. I don’t think she does.

    3. Jonathan Says:

      There’s also confusion on the distinction between “foreign” and “domestic.” Packets sent between two computers in the USA may get routed all over the place including overseas. Indeed, has our govt not been monitoring domestic communications since long before Bush was president, by intercepting it overseas as part of the Echelon program?

    4. josepdh hill Says:

      this will give you some insight into how the agency responds to FOI request! Note that what is being queried has to do with unidentified flying objects!

      here is what a very reputable Law prof says

      Bush using illegals means to spy.

      But if I am not doing anything wrong, so what?
      domestic spying not authorized till B

      this group has focused with their reputable experience on what is taking place

      I might go on and on, but no need to. Either you believe it is ok to spy domestically with no court oversight for “national defense” or you do not. I leave it to you to decide. I am merely pointing to what is currently taking place.

    5. Shannon Love Says:

      Joseph Hill,

      What you say is of interest but leaves unsaid a simple fact: what “right” was given NSA to examine domestic packets?

      Understand this. There is no way to obtain any information about a packet without reading the packet first! T

      here is no way to distinguish a “domestic” packet from a “foreign” packet without first trapping the packet. Even then, packets that originate from communications exclusively between foreigners often pass through American routers. For example, recently, an attempt to find kidnapped solider in Iraq was slowed because the phone call between two Iraqi passed through routers in the US.

      The internet and the packet-switching technology on which it is based has destroyed all the previous international boundaries. As far as communications are concerned there is no distinction anymore between foreign and domestic. Even if such a distinction remains, the NSA would still have to examine all packets in order to find the “foreign” ones.

      Read uyp on what they had been empowered to do and what they currently do and you will note a difference.

      Long before 9/11 many in the intelligence community had realized that technology was changing the signal intelligence world and that we needed new laws to catch up. Unfortunately, ignorant hysterics kept that from happening until 9/11.

    6. Shannon Love Says:

      joseph hill,

      Either you believe it is ok to spy domestically with no court oversight for “national defense” or you do not

      What you don’t understand is that the “domestic spying” that people rant about is nothing more than the physical access needed to capture any information of a modern packet-switched network.

      It is simply a physical impossibility to extract certain packets out of a network without having access to and examining all the packets in the network! You’re operating from a perspective of technological ignorance. By the ignorance based standards of the critics, we either have the option of trapping every packet for a cursory examination or trapping no packets whatsoever and writing off all modern telecommunications as an information source. It’s just that simple.

    7. David Foster Says:

      Suppose a telco maintenance tech is trying to resolve a problem with a trunk line–and suppose he collects all the traffic on that line (which may carry 10,000 calls or so) for later computer analysis of things like packet delays, skew, etc. Would anyone seriously argue that he is infringing on the privacy of the callers?

      Now say he collects that same data and gives it to NSA, who uses automated tools the sort through the packets and restore to audible form those sent to or received from a particular individual of interest. If NSA has legal authority to listen to the calls of that particular information, does anyone want to argue that the privacy of the other callers on that line is being infringed?

    8. josepdh hill Says:

      The former ATT employer had been on 60 Minutes and said that he knew what was going on indirectly but ws not allowed access to the room where the govt people were at work. But since he was an engineer with a background in the technical matters herein discussed, he would know what was being looked at (tapped etc), and he has no reason to lie. He had not been fired. In fact he knew what was going on and only revealed it after he retired. Given the govt’s propensity to deny, lie, be duplicitous–need examples?–I would listen to Mark on this issue.

      As has been noted: why ask for retroactive immunity if something had not taken place?

    9. Shannon Love Says:

      Joseph Hill,

      I think the telecom engineer is telling the truth. I believe absolutely that the NSA placed traps in all major telecommunication backbones that could in principle monitor every single domestic or foreign communication of any kind.

      What I am trying to tell you is that they had no choice but do that based on the inherent nature of the technology involved. If you tell the NSA that you want to be able to monitor certain communications, foreign or domestic, they must do exactly what they have done in order to monitor any communication of any kind from any source.

      As has been noted: why ask for retroactive immunity if something had not taken place?

      The innocent have nothing to fear from the state, eh? If I was an NSA employee reading all the articles, politicians statements and blog post from the technically ignorant I would be terrified that I would be convicted for carrying out a technologically necessary act.

    10. josepdh hill Says:

      Te comments here have been very helpful. I am beginning to think, though, that if all packetsneed to be examined to find “the right ones,” then there is no need for FISa or courts or any constraints since no sorting out or presentation of possible reason for snooping can be known beforehand. Thus, any and all things NSA would do might well be acceptable and we can not know what they are doing but must accept on the face of it that all is well and they are all working in our best interests. I wouldthough make a small admission: if the FBI is any example, I would demur. I have had firsthand experience with them and their way of dealing with some things and have found them, well, wanting.

    11. Shannon Love Says:

      Joseph HIll,

      …no need for FISa or courts or any constraints since no sorting out or presentation of possible reason for snooping can be known beforehand.

      The NSA handles this using a legal chinese wall. One section monitors the packet stream, assembles messages of interest and then provides the basic source and destination information to another section. If that section has legal authority to monitor that particular communication they read the message otherwise, its deleted. This system has existed for nearly three decades ever since packet-switched networks arose and there is no evidence it has ever been corrupted.

      However, the technical realities do mean that somebody in the NSA has access to every communication, anywhere. Unless we simply do not want to every use that type of intelligence gathering there is no other way to do it.

      You can scream, cry, stomp your feet and hold your breath but it won’t change the facts.

      If people were really serious about the matter instead of just using it raise a political hysteria, they would look for ways to further compartmentalize the capture process to make it difficult for anyone direct the system against inappropriate targets.

    12. sol vason Says:

      I doubt NASA reads every packet. I suspect they check the packet headers for the sending phone number and the receiving number. Because drug dealers use throw away phones, LEOs use pattern recognition software to identify drug dealers. If a phone has the same pattern of usage as a drug dealer’s phone, then further investigation is indicated.

      Being thoroughly modern, I suppose the NSA does the same thing as the Des Moines PD with respect to terrorist wannabes.

      I suspect reading the packets does not produce much useful info because the bad guys probably use codewords (eg. they use the term “left wing anti-war movies” instead of “bombs”) to disguise their intent. Any call from the US to the poppy fields of Afganistan, even though it may only be a check on the poppy seed crop, is worth a closer look. Eg. Drugspeak: “Lets play pool” means refers to 8 ball and “911 Frosty!” is obvious.

      Just as you have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find your prince, you have to read a lot of packets in order to develop good pattern recognition software. And you got to keep kissing to keep the software up-to-date. But, you don’t have to read everything – a random sample will do.

    13. jpe Says:

      here is no way to distinguish a “domestic” packet from a “foreign” packet without first trapping the packet.

      That’s why we require independent knowledge of the source.

    14. Shannon Love Says:


      That’s why we require independent knowledge of the source.

      I don’t understand. From a technical perspective, it’s meaningless.