Big Data Surveillance Is Real Purpose of Huge NSA Phone Record Sweep

By Wayne Rash  |  Posted 2013-06-06

Big Data Surveillance Is Real Purpose of Huge NSA Phone Record Sweep

The good news in the telephone records revelations that blew up on June 5 and 6 when the Guardian newspaper revealed that Verizon was handing over records of every call made by every customer to the National Security Agency is that they are just the basic call records.

This means that the phone numbers on each end of a call, plus other data such as the call duration, are transmitted to the agency, where they're stored in a database for processing. The contents of the calls are not included in the information that's sent to the NSA.

That doesn't sound like good news, you say? It is, compared to the revelations during the administration of George W. Bush when the content of the calls was also being recorded. What the NSA is looking for are global patterns in communications that may involve terrorism. The agency isn't looking to see how many times you called the pizzeria in a given month, or even to see how often you called your extra-marital partner.

The reason they don't care about personal phone calls for most Americans is that in the context of big data, individual events are meaningless. It's the patterns that matter, and it's the patterns of calls in the U.S. that appear to happen in conjunction with patterns of known or potential terrorists in other countries that matter most. This means that if a terrorist event such as a bombing in (for example) India elicits a series of calls in the U.S., that's something the NSA is interested in seeing.

But to be an effective use of big data, the NSA needs as much of that data as it can get, so it's a safe bet that all or at least most calls in the U.S. are being collected, not just those at Verizon. It's also a safe bet that the NSA is collecting calls outside of the U.S. as well. The reason you haven't seen a court order for those calls is that the NSA is required by law to get a court order to spy on Americans in the U.S. Outside the U.S., well that's a different story. After all, it IS a spy agency, right?

The study of vast collections of data is quickly becoming a favorite method of extracting intelligence from seemingly random data, as I found out recently at a seminar on cyber-security and big data. But the only way these methods work is by sorting through such a huge volume of data that analysis can start to discern patterns. Those patterns can then show a trained observer what's happening or even about to happen very early in the process.

Big Data Surveillance Is Real Purpose of Huge NSA Phone Record Sweep

But there's one other thing I learned at that cyber-security conference. When organizations are studying cyber-security, they go to great lengths to clean the data of personally identifiable information so the data can be shared. The value of the data doesn't change and the information gleaned doesn't change, but then the sharing becomes legal.

That's not the case with the information the NSA is collecting. While the information is being securely stored in a huge database, it still remains tied to each phone number that was party to the conversation. This is necessary because the patterns of terrorist activity would be more difficult to discern if they were anonymous. But that also means that another agency with access to the data can mine it specifically to see who communicated with whom.

What this means is that if the FBI really wanted to see who perpetrated those information leaks to news organizations that the Obama administration is freaking out about, the FBI can possibly mine this same data to find out. And while such a use may technically require a warrant, the court order produced by a secret judge in a secret court may be all the justification that the Bureau thinks it needs. What this means is that while the NSA almost certainly doesn't care about you, the FBI might and they can get to the data, too.

It's this secrecy and the lack of public examination that bothers privacy advocates the most. The Center for Democracy and Technology is expressing its outrage. "This is a massive abuse of the Patriot Act," said CDT President Leslie Harris in a prepared statement on the organization's Website. "The NSA is collecting the telephone call records of Americans who have nothing to do with terrorism or terrorists, and who pose no threat to U.S. national security."

But this is one of those situations where the current administration seems to be relishing the power that it inherited from previous administrations and is loath to give it up. Despite the outrage that then-Senator Barack Obama expressed when the earlier NSA scandal was revealed, he seems to be in no hurry to express it again.

Worse, the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which has apparently never turned down a request to obtain records, seems to have given the Obama administration a strong grasp on a new source of power that it's not about to relinquish. Clearly, it's not the NSA you have to worry about. It's the people you elected.

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