Thursday, December 5, 2013

NSA Cell Phone Monitoring

The Washington Post has published its latest Snowden expose'. The reporting concerns NSA/NGIA monitoring of cell phones around the world. 

This leak is a big deal - it's likely to get a lot of public attention.

These are some of the key points that stand out to me.

Scale - According to the Post, the US Intelligence Community (IC) is collecting up to five billion cell phone records a day. At the same time, the NSA is storing a huge portfolio of records in order to allow analysts to back-reference data. This storage enables analysts to access intelligence material that's utility has only become clear after collection. In essence, many cell phones are now collection platforms on their owners!

Reach - The NSA has apparently developed targeting capabilities which allow analysts to target and back-trace the location data on a cell phone. This means that if they so desire, the US IC can track where someone has been and who they've met (by referencing that second individual's data). Linked with the scale point, the Post notes that US citizens have inevitably been caught up in the drag net. 

In another area, the NSA has established programs that heavily scrutinize individuals who apply a 'call and chuck' approach to cell phones. It's hard to emphasize how serious this particular leak is. 'Call and chuck' procedures are standard for intelligence officers/terrorists. Now these individuals know how the US pays attention to their activities. As a corollary, the Post also reports that the NSA pays close attention to cell phones that are turned off (to avoid monitoring) at the same time and place as other phones. The NSA's understandable thinking is that this activity is deserving of special scrutiny.

Variable utility - The Post concludes with a hint that these programs have been expanded for counter-intelligence purposes as well as intelligence gathering purposes. Specifically, the Post notes a proposed effort to monitor cell phones that consistently follow CIA case officers abroad. The thinking being- consistent presence of one cell phone in proximity to an officer = potential surveillance.

               Anyway, while many of these capabilities were already known/perceptibly likely, the degree of specificity in the Post's article is noteworthy. There's no question that these leaks will have great intelligence value to US state/non-state adversaries. These actors will certainly change how they operate in order to try and evade detection. As a final point (and as I've noted before), these type of collection programs have been instrumental in countering terrorist activities across the world. That reality must form part of the public debate amidst the ongoing Snowden fallout.

If interested, my related writings can be found under 'Other' header of this page.

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