Why for the NSA every call matters

Woman using a mobile phone

The revelation that the National Security Agency (NSA), America's eavesdropping organisation, had asked mobile phone operator Verizon for phone information relating to millions of customers highlights the growing importance of "communications data" in intelligence and forensics work.

Critical to an understanding of these techniques, which have been in use by the NSA on a large scale since 2005, and which the British security authorities would like to employ on the same scale, is that these methods do not in the main relate to what is being said, simply to the details of communications such as which phone number was called by a particular subscriber and for how long.

It was in Iraq, acting in support of the secret Joint Special Operations Command, that the NSA started to record the details of every phone call made in the country. They did not have enough translators to listen to the vast majority of these calls or to assess their possible value, that was not the point.

What they found was that within months their bulk database of call details would allow them to break open terrorist networks with dramatic speed.

Landing by helicopter to raid a target, teams from Delta Force or the SAS would find telephones, sometimes prized from the hands of dead men dressed in suicide vests.

The number might never have been registered before as one of interest, but within seconds NSA experts could discover every call made on it for months before, mapping the dead bomber's connections with other individuals. This was only possible because of the blanket recording of all call details.

The use of what special operators in Iraq referred to simply as "the database" quickly grew so refined that software was developed to map networks (spotting that some numbers relevant to only one member, for example, might be family members) and that a portable, laptop-sized, terminal tapping into it started to be carried on raids.

By 2006 teams of special operators using the terminal could hit one member of an al-Qaeda cell, and hunched over the computer in a half destroyed Iraqi house, find other members through the database, fix the location of these phones and perform a "bounce on", jumping back into their helicopters to raid the next target.

Seeing the extraordinary effects of these techniques in the field, the NSA sought to apply them to domestic communications from 2006 onwards. Since the recording of this data does not include the content of the conversations, it can be extended to US citizens more easily and does not require a warrant.

It soon became apparent to people at the eavesdropping organisation that collecting information on this scale, relating to tens of millions of calls each day, and then keeping it for months or even years would require a vast new data centre to store the information.

So it began work on its $2bn Utah facility, where a ribbon cutting ceremony was held this week.

British intelligence people working in Iraq with the UK special operators (the task forces codenamed Black, Knight, and Spartan) saw these techniques and were duly impressed. They too wanted to apply them in the domestic counter-terrorist or criminal arenas.

It had in fact been the practise for many years (since the 1984 Telecommunications Act, for example) for British operators to keep customers' "billing information" for access by the government and for this to be possible without the same level of legal proof or suspicion as eavesdropping on the calls themselves.

The moves to put broad categories of "communications data" into the so called "snoopers' charter" represents an evolution of this.

Mark Urban Article written by Mark Urban Mark Urban Diplomatic and defence editor, BBC Newsnight

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  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    I believe NSA surveillance powers (the dream of any left or right wing dictator) at this point have become an existential challenge to American freedom!

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    Go offline, reject FB, remove Skype, FB video calling, Yahoo, Google, IE, Microsoft, anything that has anything to do with the American spies. Reject all things USA and to do with internet. They are watching, and you are not one of the, free of that land. I am ashamed that I speak the same language. The big tuneout, watch these internet conivers tumble, sell your shares in all of them, switch off.

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    The US has a written Constitution, the Fourth amendment to which requires not just judicial approval but probable cause for search and seizure. Since there can be no "probable cause" for mass surveillance, it violates the Constitution, and is thus illegal.

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    There is nothing stopping the "authorities" to go from monitoring to whom calls are made to looking at the content of the calls themselves. It's more than likely that this is already happening. Since one knows certain people in these agencies, one observes that they are not always the sort of people one would trust. In other words, who is to determine who is trustworthy enough to have info.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    This makes complete sense and is not a snooper's charter. You are not spying on communications, you are observing communications networks. Most of us just phone Aunt Molly, or bro & sis & a few friends, so what have we got to worry about.

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    What you buy is monitored by tiny devices put in boxes (for instance, breakfast cereal). What you buy on the internet is monitored and remembered. Banks mine databases to decide how creditworthy you are. You are on CCTV in stores and businesses. Traffic cameras are watch how you drive. These have nothing to do with the federal government's spy agencies. So why is anyone surprised?

  • Comment number 23.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    Sorry SuleiMan: "It breeds in worthless living conditions". Living conditions are a function of people in a country producing stuff. If the population produces next to nothing, there will be next to nothing to consume. If these poeople would stop feuding with each other, and everyone else, and get down to working 8 hours a day for a change, THAT would improve their living conditions. Try it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    Well, this is how war was conducted - but nothing does validate the Irak war itself. This kind of war is what brings terrorists in the first place - people are not terrorists by birth or by nationality or by skin colour or by religion, no. Terrorism is the last thing for a person. It breeds in worthless living conditions - and there the US should look at the mirror.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    The UK operates an online cooperative network with PNC links to telephone companies, ISPs, Oyster/travel cards, credit card companies, banks, etc. Telephone information here also includes tracking data for telephone movements. The NoW famously accessed phone location data for £300 a throw to the police. The tracking data has civilian uses such as modelling flu epidemics.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    NSA’s eavesdropping and the Lunar Eclipse. http://bit.ly/13KKhoR

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    Lets get this crystal clear. They are employed by us , We the people have the power in our hands to put a stop it what ever means we need to do so .So stop moaning about it and do it if they use force you do if try arrest you arrest then you the people are in charge ,

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    So these people would find some likely looking chap, kill him, get his phone number, work out who he had been speaking to, get back in the helicopter and go and kill them too.

    No judge, no jury, no trial, just some error-filled database that convicts and sentences you based on a supposed link between two phones.

    Presumably, this is what our "security services" would like to introduce here?

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    But remember one thing, people voluntarily post reams of personal data about themselves on sites like facebook or willingly give out data to companies when signing up for loyalty programmes etc etc. Data companies mine info and buy and sell your details all the time to target you with advertising and the like, why is this a surprise then that governments are watching you closely?

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    to 12. Mark used prize the correct way - to forcibly remove something from something else.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    The irony is that recently MPs warned that any Chinese component or equipment bought from Chinese companies (Huaiwei) could be used to spy on us... even the US accused the Chinese of the same, when all the time they were doing it through Google, Facebook etc.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    all you have to do is read tom Clancy to know that us govt monitors phone traffic, probably so do a lot of others
    what is completely wrong is to deny that they do, however individual cases should not be discussed as they may jeopardise security or a court case

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Can someone tell Mark the difference between 'prise' and 'prize', please? Alternatively, employ some sub-editors who know their stuff.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    I have to laugh! You think this is new, think the US is the only one doing it? All governments do it just this is reported. I am from an autocratic (repressive - certainly not open) SE Asian democratic nation using a well known ISP owned by said gov who operate globally and I know they monitor its nationals so imagine what they do to o/s clients? If supermarkets monitor your life... think abt it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Seems like a pretty good use of data to me. It's minimally invasive, but seems like a powerful analytical tool for dealing with an ongoing and sophisticated threat. If you're going to complain about big brother, are you prepared not to complain if one of your friends or family members is killed because security agencies were not allowed to use such tools? Can't have it both ways.


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