Your call is important to the NSA and they could be recording you

Mar 21, 2014 by Philip Branch, The Conversation

It was bad enough the when it was revealed the US National Security Agency (NSA) wanted to hack information on smartphones but now reports this week it wants to record the phone calls of an entire country.

Which country (or countries) are not revealed in the report by The Washington Post as it agreed to the "request of US officials" to withhold any details that could potentially identify any target country.

A months of calls

The information, said to be contained in the leaked documents obtained former contractor Edward Snowdon, say the NSA has built a system (MYSTIC) that can record and 100% of all telephone calls carried out in a country over 30 days.

Another system (RETRO) – short for "retrospective retrieval" – manages and allows replay of the calls. The number of calls that can be recorded is supposed to be in the billions.

The technical challenges in managing such huge volumes of data are immense. But we have known that the NSA is an organisation of tremendous technical capability. So, although impressive, learning that the NSA has developed such a system is not surprising.

What is extraordinary though are the claims that the NSA has actually deployed MYSTIC in an unnamed country. That is, it has been used to collect all telephone calls made within the unnamed country.

If correct then it either points to acquiesence of the country being spied upon or that the NSA has even more impressive technology at its disposal than we know of.

How is it done?

Interception and collection of telephone calls is difficult enough when the host country attempts to do it. It needs the agreement of the telecommunications company to carry out interceptions. Interceptions require the company to install quite sophisticated equipment and employ highly skilled people to operate it.

What makes interception particularly challenging is that there is no single point through which all calls must pass, so interception has to be carried out at multiple points within the network.

In the best of circumstances interception is a challenging undertaking. That the NSA could collect all the calls of a foreign country without the agreement and active assistance of that country and the telephone companies in that country beggars belief.

So perhaps the Washington Post has misunderstood the leaked documents. Perhaps a more plausible interpretation is that the system simply collect calls between the United States and the unnamed country. That in itself is sufficiently impressive but much more believeable.

We know from previous leaks that the NSA have "choke points" where calls into and out of the United States can be collected. If MYSTIC and RETRO are simply systems that operate at these points it becomes much more believable.

Nevertheless, one of the leaked documents talks about the system sending data "home" suggesting that it is resident in a foreign country. Also, the whole project was carried out under a presidential order usually used for intelligence operations outside the United States.

If it is a system installed in a foreign country, retrieving all phone calls in that country, it raises many questions.

  • How could it be installed? It is hard to imagine it being installed without the active acquiescence of the country.
  • Which countries would allow the United States to carry out mass surveillance of its citizenry?
  • How is it transmitted back to the United States?

Billions of would require enormous transmission capacity, which is certainly possible. But requiring such a large amount of installed infrastructure, it is hard to believe that we would not have heard of it before.

The story implies so many unlikely capabilities of the NSA that the misunderstanding-theory is the more tempting, and surveillance is most likely limited to calls into and out of the United States.

Previous leaks have shown that the NSA has extraordinary capabilities. But to collect all calls within a country would be beyond extraordinary.

Explore further: NSA can retrieve, replay phone calls, report says (Update)

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

NSA has 'industrial scale' malware for spying

Mar 12, 2014

The National Security Agency has developed malware that allows it to collect data automatically from millions of computers worldwide, a report based on leaked documents showed Wednesday.

US intel program targets email addresses, not keywords

Mar 19, 2014

The US government's clandestine PRISM Internet program exposed by Edward Snowden targets suspect email addresses and phone numbers but does not search for keywords like terrorism, officials said Wednesday.

UN resolution aims to protect right to privacy

Nov 01, 2013

Brazil and Germany, whose leaders have allegedly been targeted by U.S. eavesdropping, are asking the U.N. General Assembly to adopt a resolution calling on all countries to protect the right to privacy guaranteed under international ...

Supreme Court rejects plea to look at NSA program

Nov 18, 2013

The Supreme Court is refusing to intervene in the controversy surrounding the National Security Agency, rejecting a call from a privacy group to stop NSA from collecting the telephone records of millions of Verizon customers ...

Recommended for you

Man pleads guilty in New York cybercrime case

Nov 22, 2014

A California man has pleaded guilty in New York City for his role marketing malware that federal authorities say infected more than a half-million computers worldwide.

How to keep the world's eyes out of your webcam

Nov 21, 2014

There are concerns that thousands of private webcams around the world could be streaming live images to anybody who wishes to view them – without their owner knowing – thanks to a Russian website provi ...

Britain urges Russia to shut down webcam spying site

Nov 20, 2014

A Russian website offering thousands of live feeds peering into bedrooms and offices around the world by accessing poorly secured webcams should be taken down immediately, British officials said on Thursday.

NSA Director: China can damage US power grid

Nov 20, 2014

China and "one or two" other countries are capable of mounting cyberattacks to shut down the electric grid in parts of the United States. That's according to Admiral Michael Rogers, the director of the National Security Agency ...

Some in NSA warned of a backlash

Nov 20, 2014

Current and former intelligence officials say dissenters within the National Security Agency warned in 2009 that secretly collecting American phone records wasn't providing enough intelligence to justify ...

Russia hacking site spying webcams worldwide: Britain

Nov 20, 2014

Britain's privacy watchdog on Thursday called on Russia to take down a site showing hacked live feeds from thousands of homes and businesses around the world and warned it was planning "regulatory action".

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Mar 21, 2014
Did you hear that?

Hear what?

Trace complete. Call origin:

Are you sure this line is clean?

Yeah, course I'm sure.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.