Are We Already in the Age of Surveillance Time Machines?

Thursday, March 20, 2014

The National Security Agency (NSA) has apparently employed the services of Mr. Peabody, having developed a “Wayback Machine” that allows U.S. spies to go back in time and listen in on old phone conversations.


Under a secret program called MYSTIC, the NSA devised a way five years ago to capture every single phone call in a particular foreign country. Using a tool known as RETRO (short for “retrospective retrieval”), analysts can replay a conversation from any call made within the previous 30 days. Calls older than that are deleted, according to The Washington Post.


A document leaked by whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed the program can look “into the past” and allow spies to “retrieve audio of interest that was not tasked at the time of the original call.” When a subject is identified, the NSA can use the month’s worth of calls to get a history of his or her movements, associates and plans.


“Analysts listen to only a fraction of 1 percent of the calls, but the absolute numbers are high. Each month, they send millions of voice clippings, or ‘cuts,’ for processing and long-term storage,” the Post’s Barton Gellman and Ashkan Soltani reported.


The newspaper said MYSTIC is targeting one country, but wouldn’t divulge details that might identify which one.


The New York Times reported that the Snowden document says similar efforts are going on in at least four other countries, but the program records only “targeted communications” in those nations.


NSA spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden refused to comment on the program, while another agency official, spokeswoman Vanee Vines, scolded the Post in an email, saying that “continuous and selective reporting of specific techniques and tools used for legitimate U.S. foreign intelligence activities is highly detrimental to the national security of the United States and of our allies, and places at risk those we are sworn to protect.”


Civil libertarians warned that it is just a matter of time before the NSA expands the program to more countries and employs technology that allows it to go back even further in time.


Christopher Soghoian, principal technologist for the American Civil Liberties Union, told the Post that history suggests “over the next couple of years they [the NSA] will expand to more countries, retain data longer and expand the secondary uses.”

-Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

NSA Surveillance Program Reaches ‘Into the Past’ to Retrieve, Replay Phone Calls (by Barton Gellman and Ashkan Soltani, Washington Post)

Pentagon Watchdog 'Not Aware' Of NSA Bulk Phone Data Collection (by Spencer Ackerman, The Guardian)

Leaked File Details U.S. Phone Monitoring Abroad (by James Glanz, New York Times)


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