Snowden's MYSTIC Revelations Raise Credibility Questions

NEWS ANALYSIS: As each new allegation about the National Security Agency's data-gathering capabilities hits the news, one has to wonder how much of it is true and how much is sensationalism.

When the latest leak by former National Security Agency contract employee Edward Snowden hit the news channels on March 18, it failed to make much of a stir.

According to the story, the NSA has been able to record all of the telephone conversations in one (presumably unfriendly) country using MYSTIC, and, what's more, can recall any of them using a playback tool called RETRO for up to 30 days since it was recorded. The story in The Washington Post also suggested that the NSA would eventually expand this call-recording capability to as many as six other countries sometime soon.

So why was this revelation greeted with less apparent consternation than earlier Snowden leaks? Partly it's the result of more pressing news, such as Russia's annexation of Crimea and an airliner full of people that's been missing without a trace since March 8. On a slower news day, this Snowden leak might be big news.

But perhaps in this case, the usual Washington herd mentality is doing us all a favor. To accept all of Snowden's revelations uncritically is to play into the hands of Snowden and former Guardian US columnist Glenn Greenwald, two self-important people who likely don't really understand the implications of what they are claiming.

To make sense of the latest MYSTIC revelations, it's important to look at them in context of how other similar revelations shook out over time. For example, when the PRISM stories first broke, there was a lot of angst over the collection of phone metadata by the NSA. That metadata includes the basic call information, including the phone numbers involved, and the duration of the call. It does not include the contents of the call.

But then we found out that the NSA was actually able to get only about 20 percent of that metadata because it couldn't keep up with the volume of calls. Worse, processing all of the metadata that the agency did get strained its available bandwidth to the limit.

Now consider the possibility that the NSA is indeed doing what the reports claim, and is recording all of the phone calls in some unnamed foreign country. To fit within the limits of the agency's bandwidth and storage (and there are constraints—even for the NSA, bandwidth and storage are neither unlimited nor cheap), it is likely a small nation with far fewer voice-connection possibilities than the United States, Western Europe or China for that matter. It would also have to be a nation over which there has been a significant national security concern whose phone calls we have been recording for years.

So are we really collecting all of the phone calls in, say North Korea, Iran or Afghanistan? I don't know, and the NSA isn't going to reveal that.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...