Help support WeTheArmed.com by visiting our sponsors.

Author Topic: Are all telephone calls recorded and accessible to the US government?  (Read 4114 times)

Nightcrawler

  • WTA Secretary of Defense
  • Senior Contributor
  • *****
  • Posts: 6280
  • That's what SHE said!

  • Offline
http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/may/04/telephone-calls-recorded-fbi-boston


Are all telephone calls recorded and accessible to the US government?

A former FBI counterterrorism agent claims on CNN that this is the case


Former FBI counterterrorism agent Tim Clemente, on CNN, discussing government's surveillance capabilities Photograph: CNN screegrab

The real capabilities and behavior of the US surveillance state are almost entirely unknown to the American public because, like most things of significance done by the US government, it operates behind an impenetrable wall of secrecy. But a seemingly spontaneous admission this week by a former FBI counterterrorism agent provides a rather startling acknowledgment of just how vast and invasive these surveillance activities are.

Over the past couple days, cable news tabloid shows such as CNN's Out Front with Erin Burnett have been excitingly focused on the possible involvement in the Boston Marathon attack of Katherine Russell, the 24-year-old American widow of the deceased suspect, Tamerlan Tsarnaev. As part of their relentless stream of leaks uncritically disseminated by our Adversarial Press Corps, anonymous government officials are claiming that they are now focused on telephone calls between Russell and Tsarnaev that took place both before and after the attack to determine if she had prior knowledge of the plot or participated in any way.

On Wednesday night, Burnett interviewed Tim Clemente, a former FBI counterterrorism agent, about whether the FBI would be able to discover the contents of past telephone conversations between the two. He quite clearly insisted that they could:

Quote
BURNETT: Tim, is there any way, obviously, there is a voice mail they can try to get the phone companies to give that up at this point. It's not a voice mail. It's just a conversation. There's no way they actually can find out what happened, right, unless she tells them?

CLEMENTE: "No, there is a way. We certainly have ways in national security investigations to find out exactly what was said in that conversation. It's not necessarily something that the FBI is going to want to present in court, but it may help lead the investigation and/or lead to questioning of her. We certainly can find that out.

BURNETT: "So they can actually get that? People are saying, look, that is incredible.

CLEMENTE: "No, welcome to America. All of that stuff is being captured as we speak whether we know it or like it or not."

"All of that stuff" - meaning every telephone conversation Americans have with one another on US soil, with or without a search warrant - "is being captured as we speak".

On Thursday night, Clemente again appeared on CNN, this time with host Carol Costello, and she asked him about those remarks. He reiterated what he said the night before but added expressly that "all digital communications in the past" are recorded and stored:



Let's repeat that last part: "no digital communication is secure", by which he means not that any communication is susceptible to government interception as it happens (although that is true), but far beyond that: all digital communications - meaning telephone calls, emails, online chats and the like - are automatically recorded and stored and accessible to the government after the fact. To describe that is to define what a ubiquitous, limitless Surveillance State is.

There have been some previous indications that this is true. Former AT&T engineer Mark Klein revealed that AT&T and other telecoms had built a special network that allowed the National Security Agency full and unfettered access to data about the telephone calls and the content of email communications for all of their customers. Specifically, Klein explained "that the NSA set up a system that vacuumed up Internet and phone-call data from ordinary Americans with the cooperation of AT&T" and that "contrary to the government's depiction of its surveillance program as aimed at overseas terrorists . . . much of the data sent through AT&T to the NSA was purely domestic." But his amazing revelations were mostly ignored and, when Congress retroactively immunized the nation's telecom giants for their participation in the illegal Bush spying programs, Klein's claims (by design) were prevented from being adjudicated in court.

That every single telephone call is recorded and stored would also explain this extraordinary revelation by the Washington Post in 2010:

Quote
Every day, collection systems at the National Security Agency intercept and store 1.7 billion e-mails, phone calls and other types of communications.

It would also help explain the revelations of former NSA official William Binney, who resigned from the agency in protest over its systemic spying on the domestic communications of US citizens, that the US government has "assembled on the order of 20 trillion transactions about US citizens with other US citizens" (which counts only communications transactions and not financial and other transactions), and that "the data that's being assembled is about everybody. And from that data, then they can target anyone they want."

Despite the extreme secrecy behind which these surveillance programs operate, there have been periodic reports of serious abuse. Two Democratic Senators, Ron Wyden and Mark Udall, have been warning for years that Americans would be "stunned" to learn what the US government is doing in terms of secret surveillance.



Strangely, back in 2002 - when hysteria over the 9/11 attacks (and thus acquiescence to government power) was at its peak - the Pentagon's attempt to implement what it called the "Total Information Awareness" program (TIA) sparked so much public controversy that it had to be official scrapped. But it has been incrementally re-instituted - without the creepy (though honest) name and all-seeing-eye logo - with little controversy or even notice.

Back in 2010, worldwide controversy erupted when the governments of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates banned the use of Blackberries because some communications were inaccessible to government intelligence agencies, and that could not be tolerated. The Obama administration condemned this move on the ground that it threatened core freedoms, only to turn around six weeks later and demand that all forms of digital communications allow the US government backdoor access to intercept them. Put another way, the US government embraced exactly the same rationale invoked by the UAE and Saudi agencies: that no communications can be off limits. Indeed, the UAE, when responding to condemnations from the Obama administration, noted that it was simply doing exactly that which the US government does:

Quote
"'In fact, the UAE is exercising its sovereign right and is asking for exactly the same regulatory compliance - and with the same principles of judicial and regulatory oversight - that Blackberry grants the US and other governments and nothing more,' [UAE Ambassador to the US Yousef Al] Otaiba said. 'Importantly, the UAE requires the same compliance as the US for the very same reasons: to protect national security and to assist in law enforcement.'"

That no human communications can be allowed to take place without the scrutinizing eye of the US government is indeed the animating principle of the US Surveillance State. Still, this revelation, made in passing on CNN, that every single telephone call made by and among Americans is recorded and stored is something which most people undoubtedly do not know, even if the small group of people who focus on surveillance issues believed it to be true (clearly, both Burnett and Costello were shocked to hear this).

Some new polling suggests that Americans, even after the Boston attack, are growing increasingly concerned about erosions of civil liberties in the name of Terrorism. Even those people who claim it does not matter instinctively understand the value of personal privacy: they put locks on their bedroom doors and vigilantly safeguard their email passwords. That's why the US government so desperately maintains a wall of secrecy around their surveillance capabilities: because they fear that people will find their behavior unacceptably intrusive and threatening, as they did even back in 2002 when John Poindexter's TIA was unveiled.

Mass surveillance is the hallmark of a tyrannical political culture. But whatever one's views on that, the more that is known about what the US government and its surveillance agencies are doing, the better. This admission by this former FBI agent on CNN gives a very good sense for just how limitless these activities are.

***********

Wow.  Not terribly surprising, if true, but wow.  Also?  People who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones.  By which I mean, if I worked for a British newspaper, I wouldn't be so quick to call any other media outlet a tabloid, since every British newspaper is a tabloid, as near as I can tell.

What say you, tech guys? Conspiracy theory stuff, guy talking out of his ass, or is this legit?
ArizonaMOLON LABE

Retired Bomb Guy
Semi-Pro Hack Writer

WeTheArmed.com

  • Advertisement
  • ***

    aikorob

    • Contributor
    • ****
    • Posts: 1376

    • Offline

    There have been some previous indications that this is true. Former AT&T engineer Mark Klein revealed that AT&T and other telecoms had built a special network that allowed the National Security Agency full and unfettered access to data about the telephone calls and the content of email communications for all of their customers.

    repeatedly reported by Wired, ArsTechnica and others for years
    GeorgiaFrom The Codex Kalachnikova: "He who would have you surrender your arms does so because he wishes to do something you could prevent by their usage."

    booksmart

    • Token Left Leaning Idealist Libertarian
    • Senior Contributor
    • *****
    • Posts: 6668
    • E. Pluribus Unum.

    • Offline
    Yup. Access to the information is supposed to be tightly regulated (the equivalent of a warrant to access) but there have been some recorded abuses.

    My understanding of it is that TIA was freaked out over, then quietly implemented under another name a year or two later. I'm fuzzing on the name of the program, though.

    Feud

    • Teller of bad jokes.
    • Senior Contributor
    • *****
    • Posts: 4986

    • Offline
    Isn't that what the whole ECHELON project was supposed to be doing these days?

    booksmart

    • Token Left Leaning Idealist Libertarian
    • Senior Contributor
    • *****
    • Posts: 6668
    • E. Pluribus Unum.

    • Offline
    That's the word I was looking for, yup.

    JesseL

    • Gun Mangler
    • WTA Staff
    • Senior Contributor
    • *****
    • Posts: 12451

    • Offline
    I could see recording all phone calls, SMS, and IM; since those all depend on at least some degree of centralization with organizations where they can be tapped into.

    Email though, I don't buy. Anyone can set up an email server and have it never communicate with another email server, with everything exchanged between its own users connecting over encrypted connections. Add encryption of the message contents (PGP/GPG) on top of the SSL and I simply don't see any way that the contents are going to be accessible without compromising something at the sending or receiving end.

    Of course it would be possible to apply those techniques to other text or voice communications, but those implementations aren't nearly as ubiquitous as email.
    Arizona

    aikorob

    • Contributor
    • ****
    • Posts: 1376

    • Offline
    GeorgiaFrom The Codex Kalachnikova: "He who would have you surrender your arms does so because he wishes to do something you could prevent by their usage."

    booksmart

    • Token Left Leaning Idealist Libertarian
    • Senior Contributor
    • *****
    • Posts: 6668
    • E. Pluribus Unum.

    • Offline
    There would still be the intervening switches and routing DNS servers, on which the email itself would exist (however briefly).  Those are points at which duplication can occur.

    An encrypted email can still be read by somebody else, it just takes more time (sometimes, a lot more time).

    If you're wanting truly secure communication, anonymizing proxies + encrypted communications = a good start.  The rest of it is good practices, good key selection, and no one being a dumbass.

    sqlbullet

    • Contributor
    • ****
    • Posts: 1606

    • Offline
    I don't see phone calls.

    I am the head database architect for one of the largest call center companies in the world.  Among other things, my team has developed software to easedrop on any call in the company at any time, as well as to do layer voice analysis on the calls.

    The first issue you have with this scenario is getting access to the voice channel.  Your options are either hardwire at a cross connect or tap via software in a soft switch. 

    The first one would require a huge amount of hardware at every CO in the country, and would provide limited data for any call originating behind a large private branch exchange.

    Intercepting via software in a soft switch would be the only way to go, but then you run into hard limits on the number of conferences a given switch supports.  Any recording of the calls is a one-sided conference into the call.  Most switches allow a limited number of conferences per call, and total, in order to preserve resources for call quality.  And actions like call transfers will use those conference resources for during the transfer.  The end result is about 10% of the time when you request a conference for call record, you don't get it.

    That doesn't even begin to touch the issues related to storage for this magnitude of call recordings, or the complexity of the retrieval system so someone could listen to the calls.

    And for those of you thinking they do realtime analysis and only save calls that are flagged...well that is a nightmare as well.  In fact, we dodged the realtime bullet in our first go round and actually analyze recording snippets at a 15 second delay.  We analyze about 50% of the actual voice time and keep the recordings for only 30-40 seconds.  And it is still a huge expense to put the system in place for even a small 400-500 seat call center.

    I am not buying this, and I live near the Bluffdale data center.  In fact, at one time my team almost moved to a nearby office building to benefit from the cheap network connections available.
    Utah

    Thernlund

    • WTA Staff
    • Senior Contributor
    • *****
    • Posts: 14101

    • Offline
    'Accessible' and 'actively accessing' are two different things. 

    I agree with Jesse about email.  There's just no way, even for the dot-GOV, to get it all.  Or even most.

    ...

    Storage is cheap.  But there'd be no good reason to save it all even if they could.  My guess would be that it'd be cached for a moment, analysed 'quick and dirty' by a computer, then discarded completely if it met no current search criteria.

    Data that did meet some search criteria would then be handed off to a second computer for a closer look.  False hits would be discarded, matching hits would be passed up the chain.

    I could see even a third computer in the mix for further refine search hits.

    Then after all the washing it finally gets to a human operator to check out.  Trust that you talking about bombs or explosives or guns or acts of insurrection would never make it this far.  In fact, they'd probably be discarded in the first round.

    My expectation is that of all the data they do or can or will possibly ever mine, only .001% of it is actually looked at by a real human being.  And that's a generous estimate.  And most of that would even be discarded as false hits.  There just isn't enough manpower in the world to look at it all, or even most, or even a significant percentage.


    -T.


    Disclaimer:  I only breezed the OP.
    Arizona  Arm yourself because no one else here will save you.  The odds will betray you, and I will replace you...

    sqlbullet

    • Contributor
    • ****
    • Posts: 1606

    • Offline
    I agree with Jesse about email as well. 

    And I agree that any traffic that is basically ASCII that they can keep they will...So SMS, chat, even forum traffic. Heck, Google and any number of other search engines already index and cache huge data.

    But voice.  I just ran the numbers.  Based on our analysis engine data for call recording file sizes, and some quick google checks for calls and average call length.  I come up with 5000 terabytes of storage a day to record every call in the US.  And that is compressed.  And, it takes a fair amount of cpu time convert that much ulaw or alaw, which is a 64K codec that is commonly used for last mile, and converting it to g729 or a similar 8K codec.  And 8K is pretty much the floor.

    I tend to also be with T....Anything they do capture probably never gets real eyeballs on it.  Just too much data.

    Utah

    Thernlund

    • WTA Staff
    • Senior Contributor
    • *****
    • Posts: 14101

    • Offline
    But voice.  I just ran the numbers.  Based on our analysis engine data for call recording file sizes, and some quick google checks for calls and average call length.  I come up with 5000 terabytes of storage a day to record every call in the US.  And that is compressed.  And, it takes a fair amount of cpu time convert that much ulaw or alaw, which is a 64K codec that is commonly used for last mile, and converting it to g729 or a similar 8K codec.  And 8K is pretty much the floor.

    I didn't run the numbers, but this is probably pretty right on.

    A very important point here... Many might retort by saying 'Yeah, but this the the gov't'...

    The gov't does not have better tech than anyone else!  Basically, what the gov't has, you can have too (for a price).  It's not special.  In fact, the private sector easily outpaces the gov't in technology. 

    The only thing that makes the gov't special is the ability to pull together resources towards a single goal (which even that can be questionable).  But that's not really the point.  The point is that they aren't using anything that's secret to us.  We (as in the royal We, the citizenry) know exactly what they can do and how they can do it.  From there it's simple math to determine what's possible and what isn't.


    -T.
    Arizona  Arm yourself because no one else here will save you.  The odds will betray you, and I will replace you...

    JesseL

    • Gun Mangler
    • WTA Staff
    • Senior Contributor
    • *****
    • Posts: 12451

    • Offline
    I'd like to note that the comments about the volume of data to be stored and processed, and the state-of-the-art of government vs private sector tech also applies to a number of other areas that have concerned people lately - notably the worries over ubiquitous spying by drones.
    Arizona

    booksmart

    • Token Left Leaning Idealist Libertarian
    • Senior Contributor
    • *****
    • Posts: 6668
    • E. Pluribus Unum.

    • Offline
    I would love to be able to use their email filtering algorithm... it's *got* to be great at getting rid of spam...

    How many "male enhancement" emails must that poor thing go through!?

    Thernlund

    • WTA Staff
    • Senior Contributor
    • *****
    • Posts: 14101

    • Offline
    I would love to be able to use their email filtering algorithm... it's *got* to be great at getting rid of spam...

    Just key word search I expect, with modifiers for word frequency and source/destination IP addresses.  Throw in some image recognition and OCR software.  Probably further modifiers for other header content and formatting patterns.

    Remember that what the .GOV is looking for isn't what an anti-spam package would be.  Professional spammers are a million times better at sending email that you're average terrorist organization.


    -T.
    Arizona  Arm yourself because no one else here will save you.  The odds will betray you, and I will replace you...

    aikorob

    • Contributor
    • ****
    • Posts: 1376

    • Offline
    GeorgiaFrom The Codex Kalachnikova: "He who would have you surrender your arms does so because he wishes to do something you could prevent by their usage."

    RevDisk

    • WTA Staff
    • Senior Contributor
    • *****
    • Posts: 2790
      • RevDisk dot Net

    • Offline
    What say you, tech guys? Conspiracy theory stuff, guy talking out of his ass, or is this legit?

    Yes and no. Yes, they are conspiracy loonies with the tin foil wrapped on a bit too tight. No, there is a bit of accuracy in there.



    Yup. Access to the information is supposed to be tightly regulated (the equivalent of a warrant to access) but there have been some recorded abuses.

    My understanding of it is that TIA was freaked out over, then quietly implemented under another name a year or two later. I'm fuzzing on the name of the program, though.

    Stellar Wind.  Also Trailblazer, ThinThread, etc.

    Ah, crap. I need about an hour to write this out.


    To know the darkness is to love the light,
    to welcome dawn and fear the coming night.
    - Book of Counted Sorrows

    RD dot Net

    Help support WeTheArmed.com by visiting our sponsors.