May 04, 2013

Dealing with Claims That the Government is Recording All Phone Calls

You may have heard buzzing by now that the talking heads of cable news are all aflutter over comments (on CNN) by a "former FBI counterterrorism agent" implying that the federal government is recording all domestic telephone calls, and need merely to go digging into that archive to find "conversations of interest" related to the Boston bombings.

OK, let's talk about this for a moment (no pun intended). Many years ago, I publicly discussed the data requirements for "recording all telephone calls" and postulated that it was becoming technically feasible. This is not, however, the same as saying it is actually being done. There are several considerations.

First, I take anything said by "former FBI counterterrorism" operatives with more than a grain of salt. This whole sector -- like the intelligence community in general -- is rife with layers of purposeful misdirection and obfuscation. Never take anything you hear from these spooks at face value. Never.

It is now fairly well known that NSA, et al. have for decades taken the view that "merely" recording traffic is different from actually examining it -- but this has been almost entirely in the scope of international communications, and I know of no legal predicate under which NSA (or FBI, or another government entity) could collect *domestic* communications legally *en masse* as described. Of course, laws can be broken.

But the biggest reason I am doubtful of these claims is that I find it difficult to believe that surreptitious data collection of phone calls on that scale is possible without a very noticeable dribble of very explicit leaks. Somehow the same people who feel that the government is incompetent at most things believe that the government could keep all that data bottled up, with all those enticing phone calls (whether related to national security or just phone sex), without leaks.

I'm not talking here about one guy with claims about a secret telco cabinet.

There'd be so many people at various levels who would have to be involved in such a massive operation as a vacuum cleaner recording of domestic calls, that it's almost inconceivable there wouldn't be leaks not only about specifics of the program but of actual calls. The amount of money that would be offered by the gossip sites alone would be astronomical.

There's another problem too. You can't explicitly *use* any of the data from such a program without risking its exposure and an enormous blowback against everyone involved. Even if you only use the data to try track other leads, you risk massive unraveling if anybody slips up on something of this scope.

Now, obviously, I could be wrong in my speculation. I have no inside knowledge to impart. Perhaps somewhere inside the Beltway there are guys sitting at giant screens in hidden basements reading this right now and chuckling at my naivete.

Or perhaps, we're indeed being suckered by claims of capabilities that do not actually exist.

We shall see in the fullness of time.


Posted by Lauren at May 4, 2013 01:25 PM | Permalink
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