The Conversation

What If It Is Not Just Metadata the NSA is Collecting?

The claim being made in public right now is that the NSA used section 215 of the Patriot Act to collect metadata on phone calls. However there is some evidence that the NSA is actually recording the content of phone calls.

Last week I published a clip of actor Shia LaBeouf claiming, on the Jay Leno show, that an FBI consultant on the movie Eagle Eye had played him a 2 year old clip of a private phone conversation. I noted at the time that this claim had to be taken with a grain of salt given that LaBeouf was on TV to promote a film about government monitoring of communications. But given that secret information sometimes leaks to Hollywood before the rest of us, it seemed worth mentioning.

But LaBeouf is not the only person who has made this claim about the NSA having access to private calls. Just last month former FBI counter-terrorism expert Tim Clemente appeared on the Erin Burnett show on CNN to discuss the Boston marathon bombing. The discussion turned to the possibility of charges against Tsarnaev's wife. Burnett wondered if it would be possible to prove complicity given that there would be no way to know what they talked about on the phone. Here's the exchange (audio is faint so you may need to turn it up):

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.

William Binney, who worked for the NSA for 40 years, pointed to the response Clemente gave as proof that the FBI and NSA have access to much more than just metadata. Here's what Binney said in an interview with RT published today:

I would point out that the NSA had deployed Naris devices in its court documents submitted by Mark Klein, documenting the NSA room in the San Francisco At&T building where they had Naris devices in a splitter that basically duplicated the fiber-optic lines and would send them down two paths. All the information went down two directions: one of them went down the Naris devices in the NSA room. And so those Naris devices could take everything off of that fiber-optic line. One Naris Insight device could do 10 GB per second,which meant it could reassemble a million and a quarter 1000-character e-mails per second. And that’s the kind of input they could get from one device. Now I’m sure they have multiple devices at multiple sights in the country as well as other places in the world, so that’s an awful lot of data to try to manage. So they need to do things like build Bluffdale to plan for the future so they have lots of storage for all this data.

So we have two people who used to be on the inside saying the NSA is collecting everything, i.e. not just metadata but call content (and emails according to Binney). Is it true? It seems anyone in a position to verify it would be forbidden to do so.

Thinking about this practically, it seem likely that the metadata for an individual call would take up a trivial amount of storage space. The file would contain a couple phone numbers, timestamps, maybe a few dozen bytes of data about routing. The file could probably be fairly small, maybe 1k for an average call. Multiply that by a billion calls a day and you're still only talking about one TB of data. I'm spit balling these numbers obviously. Maybe the files are larger and maybe there are 3 billion calls a day to track. The point is you don't need to build a massive new data center in Utah to store phone metadata. It's just not accumulating that quickly. Call content and emails on the other hand would take up a lot of storage space.

The few suggestions we have thus far may not be enough to draw a firm conclusion, but they should be enough to raise the question. Is the NSA collecting the content of calls en masse? And if so, do we want the government to have a database of every private conversation taking place in the United States, possibly even the private calls of Members of Congress? Before we can have the debate the President says he wants, we need to know exactly what is being done.

Note: Corrected my math above. It's a 1TB a day using those assumptions. Still seems pretty manageable.


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