There’s this wiretapping scandal swirling around Washington; the politics of it are easy to understand, but it’s got some interesting technology dimensions. Herewith a look from the prospective of a search-technology professional who’s got a decent layperson’s understanding of intelligence capabilities.

Why It’s Weird · This scandal is a little weird, DefenseTech has a good short explanation. It turns out that under the provisions of the FISA legislation, the US administration can get a proper legal warrant to eavesdrop on whoever they want very fast; retroactively in fact. So why weren’t they just doing that?

The simplest explanation is that there’s some spooky new technology involved; the DefenseTech story makes that suggestion, and Kevin Drum dives deeper.

Listening to Everything, All the Time · I think that with a high probability, the US intelligence community in general, and the NSA in particular, with support from its UKUSA allies, is capturing more or less all the traffic there is: telephone, FAX, email, Usenet, Web, feeds. I think they’re data-mining all of it, looking for anything suspicious, without regard to who it’s from or who it’s to.

That’s what causes the problem: while under American law it’s OK to snoop on foreigners’ traffic, you’re not supposed to eavesdrop on Americans talking to Americans without a warrant; but the capture and filter technology has no notion of the citizenship of the traffic that it’s watching.

Can They Really Do That? · More or less. ECHELON has been a poorly-kept secret for some years now. I had personal reason to believe that in the mid-Nineties, the intelligence community was capturing and filtering all of Usenet. It’s a matter of record that the NSA has satellite-dish farms in the footprints of the major telecom satellite networks.

In another DefenseTech story, this quote appears: “A former sigint type — who also talked to Ryan, apparently — suggests a different technological approach: the NSA ‘may have compromised a hardware manufacturer — say Motorola or a satellite phone manufacturer, a telecom carrier or a satellite(s).’”

Well, duh. That’s their job. And they probably don’t need to “compromise” anyone; I suspect they have perfectly legal means of requiring (and paying for) high-bandwidth taps into the Internet flow at the usual peering points and the telecom networks at any selection of switches they choose.

What They Can’t Do · They can’t get everything; if I call the neighbor two doors down, that may not go through any switches high enough up the food-chain to have a tap. They can’t read everything; the volume is too high. They maybe can’t even scan everything, but you never know; Back in the nineties, the NSA was the largest single customer of both Sun and Cray, and the world’s largest employer of Math Ph.D’s. I wouldn’t be surprised if all of those are still true.

So we can conclude that a formidable amount money, technology, and brains is being applied to the problem of watching the world’s traffic flow and looking for suspicious behavior. I bet that if you sent an email or made a phone call from Kabul to Karachi saying that Osama would meet Abu-Musab at 4PM at the Kandahar Koffee Shoppe, it wouldn’t go un-noticed. Maybe it wouldn’t go un-noticed if it was from Cleveland to Tampa, either; hence the legal problem.

Should We Worry? · In general, I heartily approve of almost all espionage, because it makes the world a safer place. The the kind of people who start wars and launch major terrorist incidents are handicapped if they can’t keep secrets. And who could possibly object to a wiretap that might land you Osama and Abu-Musab?

On the other hand, when federal agents drop by because you took the wrong book out of the library, or the FBI spies on the vegans and animal-rights crowd, you have a political problem. And at the end of the day, if you can’t trust your intelligence community to avoid this kind of insanely paranoid behavior, maybe you just have to forego some chances to catch the bad guys. But that’s a policy problem, not a technology problem.

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December 20, 2005
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