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NSA's MYSTIC and RETRO
March 18, 2014 12:21 PM   Subscribe

New Snowden disclosures: "The National Security Agency has built a surveillance system capable of recording '100 percent' of a foreign country’s telephone calls, enabling the agency to rewind and review conversations as long as a month after they take place."

"At the request of U.S. officials, The Washington Post is withholding details that could be used to identify the country where the system is being employed or other countries where its use was envisioned."

Also, "Some of the documents provided by Snowden suggest that high-volume eavesdropping may soon be extended to other countries, if it has not been already. The RETRO tool was built three years ago as a 'unique one-off capability,' but last year’s secret intelligence budget named five more countries for which the MYSTIC program provides 'comprehensive metadata access and content,' with a sixth expected to be in place by last October."

Previously
posted by Noisy Pink Bubbles (60 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

 
"At the request of U.S. officials, The Washington Post is withholding details that could be used to identify... other countries where its use was envisioned."

What is "all of them," Alex?
posted by Etrigan at 12:25 PM on March 18 [14 favorites]


A senior manager for the program compares it to a time machine

Must be from the marketing department. It sounds like a recording device to me, with a 30 day buffer.
posted by chavenet at 12:31 PM on March 18 [10 favorites]


Previously-er
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 12:33 PM on March 18


If it was so capable as is claimed, why did we not know what Putin and his colleagues had in mind for Crimea? Phones must have been used. Computers used. l
posted by Postroad at 12:37 PM on March 18


They know they're sweeping up U.S. citizens in this, and they just don't care about the law. But nobody's going to be able to prosecute these criminals, I bet.
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 12:38 PM on March 18 [2 favorites]


If it was so capable as is claimed, why did we not know what Putin and his colleagues had in mind for Crimea? Phones must have been used. Computers used. l

Because the nations involved are probably working closely with the NSA.

I seriously suspect the nation involved is the UK.
posted by ocschwar at 12:43 PM on March 18 [2 favorites]


It would seem natural to suggest that the NSA will implement this in the UK while GCHQ implements it in the US. Both security agencies can then effectively listen into their citizens' phonecalls at will without breaking the spirit of the law.
posted by Thing at 12:47 PM on March 18 [14 favorites]


Dick Nixon had such a system for the Oval Office and look where it got him....

C'mon Eddie. No red-blooded American cares about the NSA spying on greasy foreigners. Cut to the chase and show us where the NSA is bugging the Democratic National Committee. Then we'll see some action.

Short of a relevation like that, I don't think anything changes and Snowden will become increasingly irrelevant.
posted by three blind mice at 12:48 PM on March 18 [1 favorite]


I like they way they used the Alltel wizard to symbolize the program in their Powerpoint briefing. There has to be some significance there but I am not sure what.
posted by TedW at 12:49 PM on March 18


Cut to the chase and show us where the NSA is bugging the Democratic National Committee. Then we'll see some action.

Not in this day and age, I'm afraid. Unless they find info about a clandestine blowjob somewhere.
posted by TedW at 12:51 PM on March 18 [1 favorite]


"capable of recording '100 percent' of a foreign country’s telephone calls"

This doesn't necessarily mean the NSA is spying on a foreign country's calls.

"At the request of U.S. officials, The Washington Post is withholding details that could be used to identify the country where the system is being employed or other countries where its use was envisioned."

COULD THAT COUNTRY BE THE U.S.?!?!?!?!




I'm sorry.
posted by nushustu at 1:03 PM on March 18


COULD THAT COUNTRY BE THE U.S.?!?!?!?!

I think that all of the "foreign" qualifiers in the article preclude that possibility.

That being said, the NSA has many other programs to screw Americans, obviously.
posted by Noisy Pink Bubbles at 1:11 PM on March 18


This doesn't necessarily mean the NSA is spying on a foreign country's calls.

The capability is there and decisions are being made about it in secret. Isn't that bad enough?
posted by brundlefly at 1:12 PM on March 18 [3 favorites]


ocschwar: "I seriously suspect the nation involved is the UK."

Or Canada. Less people, closer ties to the US, more inter agency law enforcement cooperation, more calls between the two countries.

I wonder if the NSA is also capturing Skype traffic as that is where all the growth in international traffic has been.
posted by Mitheral at 1:16 PM on March 18


This doesn't necessarily mean the NSA is spying on a foreign country's calls.

From the FPP:
At the request of U.S. officials, The Washington Post is withholding details that could be used to identify the country where the system is being employed...
(emphasis added)
posted by Etrigan at 1:18 PM on March 18 [4 favorites]




C'mon Eddie. No red-blooded American cares about the NSA spying on greasy foreigners. Cut to the chase and show us where the NSA is bugging the Democratic National Committee. Then we'll see some action.

How about removing incriminating information from Senate computers?
posted by psycho-alchemy at 1:19 PM on March 18 [3 favorites]


That was the CIA
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 1:20 PM on March 18


why did we not know what Putin and his colleagues had in mind for Crimea? Phones must have been used

Who knows? If it's true, they may have. I may not be following closely enough but it looks like the response is sanctions--what could they have done in advance with this knowledge, other than threaten sanctions?
posted by Hoopo at 1:32 PM on March 18 [2 favorites]


Surely this...
posted by Foosnark at 1:43 PM on March 18 [4 favorites]


I know in many circles, Snowden is viewed as a folk hero, but from my ostrich perch, the trickling of revelations is starting to sound a bit contrived and thin. Perhaps its just my denial in high gear... or... dum dum dum... is it just part of the plan?

If I were the head of the NSA and encountered a situation like Snowden, I'd flood the newswires with plausible, yet non-existent "Official Snowden leaks" as background noise once I realized he wasn't going to go away. Of course, it being me, I would be found out because I wouldn't be able to resist eventually mentioning "SkyNet." But whatevs.
posted by Debaser626 at 1:56 PM on March 18


Matt Blaze is one of the leading academic researchers who studies this type of large scale wiretapping. Authored several papers on it, etc etc.

Here are some selected comments from his twitter feed today:

* Practically speaking, It's not even clear to me how you'd do this *with* cooperation. Requires a *lot* of collection points & backhaul.
* Note that this article is talking about some particular foreign country, not all foreign countries. Still surprising.
* Which won't stop people from exaggerating this into "NSA can read our thoughts with satellites". The story is scary enough without "help".
* I wonder if the "100%" is some sort of non-technical management-speak or actually means 100%
* My bet is that this involves a country with little or no landline infrastructure.
* I'm betting this is a country with mostly cellphones. One surreptitious collection point near each cell site.
* If they have true 100% content coverage of a non-tiny country, for me that's the biggest technical surprise so far in Snowden.
* No, this doesn't "prove" that NSA is recording all US domestic phone content. If anything, it suggests they aren't.
* I'm betting country with combo of recently installed (pwned) wireline infrastructure & heavy reliance on cellphones.
* This doc is particularly instructive about the importance of metadata for understanding content. http://apps.washingtonpost.com/g/page/world/description-of-data-collection-by-nsa-under-mystic/879/
* Basically if you have a choice of protecting your metadata or your content, protect metadata. (Unfortunately, not usually the choice).
* Crypto that protects only content (and not metadata). looks more inadequate every day.

I've tried to grab relevant stuff without editorializing. It's still worth it to check out his thoughts. I've found him to be one of the more level headed and insightful voices on the most of the Snowden leaks.
posted by yeahwhatever at 2:04 PM on March 18 [13 favorites]


At the request of U.S. officials, The Washington Post is withholding details that could be used to identify the country where the system is being employed...

Because god forbid we should do more than mildly discomfort the feckwits who've designed this programme.

Also terrorism.
posted by MartinWisse at 2:08 PM on March 18 [3 favorites]


Would it be Iraq or Afghanistan, one of the countries we destroyed and gave contractors piles of money to rebuild?
posted by jepler at 2:18 PM on March 18 [4 favorites]


Citizens of the US should be fearful. They are spied on by GCHQ at the behest of the NSA. GCHQ is overseen by two people, one of whom is clearly a "old boy" who is utterly unwilling to take his job seriously.
posted by Thing at 2:33 PM on March 18 [1 favorite]


When I worked for a VoIP company, we actually owned a product called 'network time machine' that could do this with all of our calls, though we had a filter on it so we could only use it for customers we were troubleshooting quality problems with. It was trivial to turn it on for all calls, though.
posted by empath at 3:56 PM on March 18


The possibility of a mutually assured destruction deal with GCHQ seems fitting but unlikely. That would be too much capacity for anyone.

My guess is UAE or another smaller middle eastern/gulf state with a semi-friendly power structure.
posted by These Premises Are Alarmed at 4:00 PM on March 18


The surprise isn't that the NSA is doing this, it's that they're so competent at doing it. I wish the rest of US government IT was this effective.

It's clear NSA is operating on a novel interpretation of their powers, which is that it's OK to record absolutely everything if you only really ever look at some specific things. And that you can write algorithms to mine data across all the things. It's sort of a Fourth Amendment for the age of Big Data. It's terrifying.
posted by Nelson at 4:26 PM on March 18 [1 favorite]


This has been touched on, earlier in the thread, but I have to repeat it, as I'm kind of slack-jawed, over here:

With such amazing covert Signals Intelligence capabilities, how can we be such *crap* at foreign relations? You would think that with this surfeit of information, we'd be able to know where to apply pressure to get the results we need.
posted by jpolchlopek at 4:38 PM on March 18 [6 favorites]


Maybe I'm naive, but this kind of reminds me of the internal documents from Saddam Hussein that claimed that they totally had all sorts of weapon capabilities that just didn't exist, because that was the easiest way to avoid getting fired and to keep the sweet defense spending cash coming in. Contra Nelson, I'd be surprised if the NSA were actually pulling this off competently, rather than just describing it as competently executed.
posted by klangklangston at 4:47 PM on March 18


* I'm betting this is a country with mostly cellphones. One surreptitious collection point near each cell site.

AFAIK, all modern voice traffic is carried over IP these days. Route it all through an NSA black box and voila, 100% collection and archival through one collection point. Much easier than managing a bunch of ghost cell towers.

It's probably Canada. We've been building a humongous CSIS facility with ungodly power requirements. It probably houses a huge processing farm.

Come to that, the CSIS facility is a little overlarge for this nation. It's probably going to record the US as well.
posted by five fresh fish at 4:50 PM on March 18




That's sorta awesome.
posted by jpe at 5:17 PM on March 18


> With such amazing covert Signals Intelligence capabilities, how can we be such *crap* at foreign relations?

You have to understand the United States' interaction with the rest of the world is basically in the role of "playground bully". Having more information is going to increase the US's feeling that they're the biggest dog ever, and going to increase their irrational belligerence and machismo, not decrease it.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 5:29 PM on March 18


It seems like Matt Blaze is mostly familiar with old school, pre-VoIP and pre-Tempest era wiretapping. But I'm probably being a jackass and need to read more about him...he just seems way too focused on POTS lines as if you need to literally tap into every one of them, or millions of CO locations in order to snag recordings.
posted by lordaych at 6:24 PM on March 18 [1 favorite]


"How can we be such *crap* at foreign relations?" Because the world is churning and we need lots of hatred and conflict to keep up the non-negotiable (as GW Sr. put it) American Way of Life. 4SRS.
posted by lordaych at 6:25 PM on March 18


With such amazing covert Signals Intelligence capabilities, how can we be such *crap* at foreign relations?

The obvious, overt and explicit contempt for that US leaders exhibit for other countries may have something to do with it.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 6:27 PM on March 18 [1 favorite]




C'mon Eddie. No red-blooded American cares about the NSA spying on greasy foreigners. Cut to the chase and show us where the NSA is bugging the Democratic National Committee. Then we'll see some action.

If I was Vladimir Putin, I would have my top Russian hackers start making various false flag attacks that look like NSA or GCHQ.
posted by save alive nothing that breatheth at 6:51 PM on March 18


With such amazing covert Signals Intelligence capabilities, how can we be such *crap* at foreign relations? You would think that with this surfeit of information, we'd be able to know where to apply pressure to get the results we need.
Why do you think you're not?
Or to put it another way, "who's this we you talk of"?
posted by fullerine at 6:59 PM on March 18


The obvious answer is that the people who have access to all this intelligence aren't working for you. They have their own agendas.
posted by empath at 7:09 PM on March 18 [2 favorites]


It goes to say they have all of our voice prints, so it doesn't matter if phones are switched, or anything else. Our voices are our absolute identifications.
posted by Oyéah at 7:11 PM on March 18


So, persons of interest wherever they are jump right out.
posted by Oyéah at 7:12 PM on March 18


which makes Siri a little more interesting, doesn't it? use it to send texts, theoretically texts can be matched to the sender (who may not be the phone owner.) as a technology problem it's fun to think about.
posted by davejay at 7:23 PM on March 18


* I'm betting this is a country with mostly cellphones. One surreptitious collection point near each cell site.

Say...Indonesia?

With such amazing covert Signals Intelligence capabilities, how can we be such *crap* at foreign relations?
Say we did access to Putin's administration's communications. Thats a lot of information to sift through and comtextualize. Decisions will be made by analysts and their bosses at various levels as to what gets passed up the chain, and what gets put way for later. And you're talking about an agency who's acronym was joked to stand for Never Say Anything. Its probably hard enough to put a web of connections between different data together when your culture IS optimized for collaboration and information sharing. That said, they have had 13years to try and break old habits. I won't say bad habits, because compartmentalization does have its place. Its one way you try and minimize the damage leaks can cause.

These datasets are still, I suspect, often of their greatest value when you start with names, keywords, dates. Clever queries and mapping of human connections.
posted by The Legit Republic of Blanketsburg at 7:31 PM on March 18


I would enjoy seeing such datasets visualized in large scale holographic displays. There are so many ways you could render and unpack meaning from that data. Perhaps one day we can accept and embrace such data for democratic and geo-Socratic self reflection. It's sad that we're so afraid of our own image. I bet it is beautiful.
posted by astrobiophysican at 10:57 PM on March 18


I doubt they could extract any evidence that say Putin rigged the Crimea referendum, Postroad and kinda jpolchlopek. A priori, I'd expect they've point broad surveillance capacity mostly towards America and western nations for the purpose of analyzing and suppressing dissent. American oligarchs have no interest in overthrowing the Russian oligarchs, as fullerine suggested.
posted by jeffburdges at 4:30 AM on March 19 [1 favorite]


Snowden's telepresence robot did a very recent TED Talk.
posted by gman at 6:18 AM on March 19


C'mon Eddie. No red-blooded American cares about the NSA spying on greasy foreigners. Cut to the chase and show us where the NSA is bugging the Democratic National Committee. Then we'll see some action.
US tech giants knew of NSA data collection, agency's top lawyer insists NSA general counsel Rajesh De contradicts months of angry denials from big companies like Yahoo and Google.
posted by adamvasco at 4:26 PM on March 19 [1 favorite]


Regarding being crap at foreign relations:

the nominal purpose of intelligence agencies is to produce a product (i.e. intelligence reports) for a very limited set of consumers (i.e. security-cleared government officials). Even with capabilities like this, and even assuming stellar analysis (not always a sound assumption), the government officials that receive the end product and are responsible for formulating policy might not give the intelligence due consideration, might be previously committed to another agenda, might not be able to act on the intelligence without giving away sources and methods, and so on.

I'll also go out on a limb and speculate that less democratic societies with more internal controls have similar capabilities, which would make foreign policy just as hard as it's always been.
posted by iffthen at 12:23 AM on March 21


White House plan would end NSA's bulk collection of Americans' phone data

Hmmm. They'll just let GHCQ do the bulk collection for them, and vice versa?
posted by Golden Eternity at 9:30 PM on March 24








To be fair, that's a regular complaint about Obama — that he waits for Congress to do their jobs on legislation, e.g. DADT. He just seems to forget which Congress he's got, who couldn't get less governing done if they were an '80s snobs vs. slobs movie.
posted by klangklangston at 4:44 PM on April 6


That's true.
posted by homunculus at 4:58 PM on April 8










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