We have all seen movies like Enemy of the State, Eagle Eye and most recently the Echelon Conspiracy. Hollywood’s dramatizations of futuristic computerized surveillance systems able to monitor your every telephone call, credit card transaction, and e-mail. The targeted person picks up the telephone and within minutes a central computer has analyzed and identified the person’s voice and pin pointed their exact location. Sounds very intriguing, but how far is all of this from the truth? As it turns out, not very far at all.
Under the Clinton Administration a system named “Carnivore” was developed for the specific purpose of sniffing telephone and Internet traffic. In other words, the Clinton Administration, with then Attorney General Janet Reno’s approval and the FBI at the controls, wanted to know who was talking to whom, who was e-mailing whom and what people were doing online (remember, Al Gore created the Internet, right? ::: sarcasm :::). Be that as it may or may not be, when word of Carnivore leaked to the public the government promptly renamed it the “DCS1000″ (Digital Collection System). Many conspiracy theorist claimed the system existed but no one, outside of a select few in government, really knew for sure and with the new name is was easy to deny that Carnivore existed, because it didn’t anymore. Carnivore/DCS had to be installed locally at the network backbone in order to intercept data. It is doubtful that the phone companies knew exactly what the system did at the time it was first installed and they were probably told that it was just some new fangled wire tapping equipment.
As things progressed, Carnivore became outdated as Internet speeds began increasing making it harder for Carnivore to process data in a timely fashion. At the same time, a 33-year-old Israeli immigrant created a new start-up company named “Narus” (Latin for “To Know”) which manufactured a product very similar to Carnivore except that it was designed to monitor the data flow for subscriber usage so that any unauthorized telephone usage could be eliminated and people could be billed on a bandwidth basis (pay for what you use type billing). Although it’s not certain who approached who first, but Narus turned its system into a complete data mining operation and got the contract to replace Carnivore, and the same was activated on many telephone company systems under the name of “Narus STA 6400″ (Semantic Traffic Analysis). By this time, the telephone company must have known what the system did because the government was asking for fiber optic splitters to be installed. After the stinging presidential election defeat of Al Gore, the new Bush Administration assumed control of the data mining operation from the Clinton Administration. As we all know, allegations were flying from both sides as to how the election was won and by whom. Pundits were looking for anything for give Bush a black eye. Then 9/11 happened and the Nation became united, but this soon wore off and it was back to trying to dig up dirt on Bush. Low and behold an AT&T employee (from the Democratic stronghold of San Francisco no less) comes forward and leaks information to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and most likely the New York Times about a secret room inside an AT&T building that was being controlled and accessed by the NSA (Room 641A). When the employee was finally able to gather enough information and smuggle it out of AT&T’s office, the EFF filed a class action lawsuit against AT&T for spying on Americans without their permission. See Hepting v. AT&T. This sent the Bush Administration scrambling and, after a motion to dismiss the lawsuit based on national security had failed, they ultimately passed a Bill giving the phone companies immunity for their past actions, thus, making an end run around the court by making the lawsuit moot on its face. It was an attempt to limit the exposure of the extent of the data mining and to dismiss the lawsuit. As of this writing, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals still has the matter under consideration but is expected to rule in favor of the government.
Long story short, the Narus system is still up and running, and by virtue of the pilfered documents, believed to be installed at these providers: AboveNet, Allegiance, AT&T, ConXion, C&W, Genuity, Global Crossing, Level 3, Mae West, PAIX, PSINet, Qwest, Sprint, Telia, UUNET, Verio, and XO Communications. All telephone and Internet traffic within the United States must pass through one of these key locations giving the government full national coverage. (Can you hear me now?) This past April, the Obama Administration adopted the Bush Administration’s position of national security regarding the Narus system and filed a motion to dismiss a similar privacy lawsuit filed in federal court. See Jewel v. the NSA. With the Clintons now in, and close to, the Obama Administration you know Bill will explain the value of spying on your adversaries, both terrorists and Republicans alike, so that the Narus system isn’t going anywhere for a while. Hence, Obama’s need for a Cyber Czar to oversee the system and report back directly to the White House. This new Cyber Czar position, with its to be named department, is probably more like a consolidation of both foreign and domestic data being analyzed by a single organization rather than the FBI, the CIA, the NSA and others each doing it separately. Despite President Obama’s recent assurance that, “Our pursuit of cyber security will not — I repeat, will not include — monitoring private sector networks or Internet traffic,” the data mining operations continue unbridled to this day with a well publicized breach occurring just this past April whereby many American’s had their telephone conversations and e-mails intercepted in what officials describe simply as an “over collection problem.”
Ok. A show of hands please. Who voted for change? — Suckers!
And for those not in the United States who are laughing. Don’t. There are like systems with such mysterious sounding names like Echelon, Frenchelon (the unidentified French version) and Onyx monitoring all European and overseas data from several locations, one of which (Echelon) has roots all over the world with one such place being Northern England at an RAF military installation jointly run with the NSA (you know there is an American presence there when you see streets with the names of Main Street, First Avenue, Second Avenue, etc., running through the base).
From what has been learned about the systems, or from what can be believed, is that every telephone call made, every website visited, every fax or e-mail sent, is routed through one of these various eavesdropping systems. The system scans for the mention of certain key words, many of them top secret in nature and some not so much like, jihad, bomb and building. Should the key words be spoken, or faxed, or e-mailed, the system records the information and forwards it to the proper government personnel for analysis together with where the information originated. Even the posting of this article is sure to have prompted such a hit causing someone from within the government to read it just as you are right now.
It could be said that these systems, while an invasion of privacy, will never be used from a criminal prosecution standpoint. That is to say, if you confess to a friend over the telephone of having stolen millions of dollars from a business associate, no one is going to come out and arrest you or play a tape of that telephone call in court. Why? Because (1) doing so would over burden the capabilities of the system; and (2) the government would have to explain, in detail, how the system works — something it is never going to do. Instead, the system acts more like an early warning system of sorts whereby it discovers previously unknown information and that information is used to further investigate the matter by gathering enough separate and independent information to garner a court ordered wiretap or surveillance and, from these, use the results to charge the person with a crime. In this way the spy system is never revealed nor is it even suspected of being used. Its liken to trying to find a needle in a haystack. A daunting task to say the least, but if you know precisely where in the haystack to look for the needle, the job becomes almost trivial.