NSA Wizards ‘Time Travel’ Through Captured Phone Calls

A phone-topped-staff carrying wizard illustrated an NSA briefing on a program collecting 100% of calls in target countries
NSA used a wizard to illustrate a 2012 briefing about a program that collects 100 percent of calls in target countries.

A surveillance network built by the National Security Agency (NSA) allows U.S. spies to listen to phone calls that happened up to a month before, by recording every single phone call in a given country and storing the results until human eavesdroppers have time to tune in, according to documents released by whistleblower and former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

A senior manager for the program called it a time machine because it lets surveillance teams go back in time and listen to conversations held by newly identified suspects even weeks after those conversations happened, according to a March 18 story in The Washington Post.

The newly released Snowden documents also show even more of an SF/Fantasy sensibility among the NSA’s wizard programmers and phone hackers than in previous programs. The time-travel tool is called RETRO, which is short for “retrospective retrieval.” It is part of a program called MYSTIC, which was launched in 2009, according to the Post.

A cover slide on a presentation about the program, created by the NSA Special Source Operations team responsible for large-scale phone-network data collection, shows a pointy-hat-wearing bearded wizard carrying a staff topped by a smartphone. The system itself is based on a data buffer big enough to include 30 days’ worth of intercepted phone calls, which allows analysts sifting through the data to retroactively look for calls made by suspects they didn’t suspect of anything at the time the calls and recordings were made, according to the Post‘s summary of the documents.

The presentation mentions that the MYSTIC program had been expanded to include a country it had not covered before, but the Post withheld the name of the country at the request of U.S. officials, according to the paper.

The MYSTIC program is the first to be acknowledged as being able to capture every single phone call in a targeted country, though all the NSA’s recently disclosed surveillance programs depend on bulk collection of phone and Internet-activity data. The RETRO tool was built three years ago as a unique platform to satisfy a one-time requirement about a specific target, but has since been expanded to cover a total of five countries, with a fifth scheduled to be added in October, according to the Post. Within its first year, MYSTIC overwhelmed the capacity of NSA datacenters to store the information; a program officer wrote in the disclosed documents that the program “has long since reached the point where it was collecting and sending home far more than the bandwidth could handle.”

NSA officials refused to confirm the existence of MYSTIC or accuracy of the documents, but documents in the paperwork asking Congress to approve funding for the NSA’s massive Utah Data Center said the four 100,000-square-foot datacenters in the proposed facility were needed to match the volume of surveillance data the Agency was already collecting.

The method is the opposite of the normal approach to surveillance by U.S. intelligence agencies, who typically identify a facility, organization or individual to investigate and then collect all the data they can, justifying the surveillance on whatever suspicions put those targets on its radar in the first place. The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution requires that government agencies identify specific individuals they suspect of crimes before asking courts for special permission to invade that suspect’s privacy through surveillance or by searching homes, property or data belonging to a suspect. “This is a truly chilling revelation, and it’s one that underscores how high the stakes are in the debate we’re now having about bulk surveillance,” according to a statement from Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which opposes the surveillance programs.

“The NSA has always wanted to record everything, and now it has the capacity to do so,” he added. “The question now is simply whether we have the political will to impose reasonable limits on the NSA’s authority–that is, whether we have the political will to protect our democratic freedoms.”

As part of a set of limitations set on the NSA in response to scandals following the Snowden revelations, President Obama issued an order Jan. 17 that the NSA and other U.S. agencies should use bulk acquisition of phone data only in response to six specific threats, including terrorism and nuclear proliferation.

NSA analysts listen to only about one percent of all calls collected, which they identify according to their connection to identified suspects and by using audio-processing computers so sift conversations for keywords indicating a topic of interest.

Image: NSA