How the U.S. PRISM and Blarney Progams Mine Your Data for Intelligence

By Wayne Rash  |  Posted 2013-06-08 Print this article Print

As in the case of the call records, the agency isn’t recording the content, but rather using the metadata to look for patterns. It’s the patterns in the data that raise the flag that a terrorist action is being discussed.

How, you wonder, is this even possible? In one sense, it’s not. Despite its significant capabilities, even the NSA can’t read all the email that travels through the Internet every day. Besides, trying to monitor such a huge percentage of spam isn’t likely to yield much beyond a clogged network gateway. But what the NSA does is take samples and flag those keywords. When the agency starts to detect specific combinations of keywords, paired with metadata from Blarney, then the specific sender or recipient is flagged for further analysis.

Blarney works in concert with PRISM by tracking email and other traffic as it passes through what the NSA calls "Internet choke points," which probably refers to major ISPs and major routing centers, especially those in the San Francisco and Washington regions. Blarney then mines this traffic for metadata from email and other communications such as file transfers and multimedia files.

Depending on the nature of the information, the NSA may share the email details with another agency such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) or the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The job is so vast that the NSA is sharing this job with British intelligence, which is doing its own searching and analysis.

You may also wonder how this is legal. Again, this is the subject of a court order by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), which acts on secret warrant requests from intelligence agencies. This court is sufficiently secret that initially its very existence was a secret. However that was revealed a few years ago. This court is also known for never having turned down a surveillance request by a U.S. intelligence agency.

Now that the existence of these programs is known, there’s been some discussion in Washington that the director of national intelligence may shut them down. That’s a fantasy. These programs are so successful at yielding actionable information that they are a primary source for critical intelligence. In addition, because a large majority of all global Internet traffic passes through the U.S. at some point in its journey, there’s little that terrorists or anyone else can do to prevent it.

What might happen, at least before someone files a Fourth Amendment lawsuit, is that terrorists overseas may stop communicating using email. This alone would curb their operations and while that’s not a bad thing, there are other worries.

Those other worries include whether the existence of this capability and its companion court orders may give other agencies, such as the Department of Justice, a way to circumvent the requirement for search warrants in its witch hunt for leaks to the news media. That would be a very bad thing indeed.



Submit a Comment

Loading Comments...
Manage your Newsletters: Login   Register My Newsletters

Rocket Fuel