Friday, May 12, 2006

Massive privacy violation by U.S. government

The revelations of privacy violation by the U.S. Government keeps going on. The latest is news that the NSA has a huge database recording the "envelopes" of most telephone calls made in the U.S. This is following the wiretapping scandal from last year, and I see a lot of hubbub in the news.

NSA has massive database of Americans' phone calls USA Today, May 11, 2006

Anger grows over NSA surveillance report C|NET News, May 11, 2006

NSA Sweep "Waste of Time," Analyst Says, May 12, 2006

"Every Call Ever Made" in NSA Database, May 12, 2006

NSA's data mining explained, CNET News, May 12, 2006

The system in the latest revelation relies on cooperation from the telephone carriers. The telephone carriers worked with the NSA to install equipment in their switching systems, and the equipment extracted certain information from the telephone switching systems, and transmitted that information back to NSA headquarters.

The claim is the data is simply the telephone numbers involved with every phone call. This is known as "envelope" information, as it is akin to the addressing on the outside of an envelope sent through postal mail.

The way I understand this, each individual telephone call doesn't give much information. But by collecting a huge number of phone calls one can build a map of associations between telephone numbers. That is, if person A at phone number N regularly calls person B at phone number Z, that's an association.

Each call sets up a relation between the phone numbers involved in the call.

If, by other means, the spooks have determined that phone number T is used by nefarious individuals, then any phone call to/from that phone number should be of interest to the spooks. Calls to/from that phone number associates the other phone number with those nefarious activities done by the owner of phone number T.

Since the system only records the envelope (supposedly) all phone calls have equal significance. Suppose the nefarious people at phone number T decide to make an innocent phone call? For example someone might come to their door saying "my car broke down, can I call my brother". Now the brother of this innocent bystander has now become associated with the nefarious people. Who knows what method the spooks have for detecting innocent bystanders and weeding them out.

This system is obviously a followon to the Total Information Awareness system. I recorded the status of the TIA back in 2002: DARPA's Information Awareness Office, The Total Information Awareness System; Or, Big Brother in-carnate

It's important to point out that the discovery by the public of the TIA caused a privacy hubbub, which then caused the Congress people to make enough hubbub that the Department of Defense "cancel" the program. What they actually did was cancel a couple of the programs, and then migrate the rest of the programs to other directors.

Among the TIA projects existant in 2002, there are two which are obviously related to this.

Evidence Extraction and Link Discovery (EELD) involved detection of interesting correlations and connections between specific elements in large sets of data. The discussion I wrote above about the relations between telephone numbers by tracking the calls between phone numbers would fit very well with EELD.

Genisys describes a data collection and storage system that would be very useful to EELD.

I think it's very important to interpret this relevation within the larger context. It's clear that the U.S. Government wants a very intrusive system that watches everything that we do. The revelations last year of wiretapping, and the current revelations of collecting the phone numbers of every phone call, these are not isolated incidents.

The prior existence of the Total Information Awareness system tells us what they are interested in. They will not have lost interest in their goal, instead they will have moved the projects around putting them behind cloaks of secrecy and more.

Again I find myself thinking -- is this the world we want to create? Does this match the core values of America? Or is this representing a government that has diverged itself from American values?

I think this is divergent from American values. If this is true, then why are we, Americans, sitting on our hands and not doing anything about this?

UPDATE: William Arkin with the Washington Post just posted Telephone Records are just the Tip of NSA's Iceberg which gives more details of the existing programs being developed by the government. Included in this posting is a list of 500 software tools that have been developed by government agencies for intelligence data gathering and mining.

Of course it makes sense for the government to be employing advanced software tools. As technology advances, shouldn't the government make use of it?

Well, okay. But, the issue is how often are they going to make mistakes, and whether the systems are intrusive or not.