Thursday, May 18, 2006

Late 1990s NSA program

The Baltimore Sun has reported on a shelved 1990s NSA program to collect and analyze phone records which had the following features:
*Used more sophisticated methods of sorting through massive phone and e-mail data to identify suspect communications.

* Identified U.S. phone numbers and other communications data and encrypted them to ensure caller privacy.

* Employed an automated auditing system to monitor how analysts handled the information, in order to prevent misuse and improve efficiency.

* Analyzed the data to identify relationships between callers and chronicle their contacts. Only when evidence of a potential threat had been developed would analysts be able to request decryption of the records.

Perhaps this program was brought back after 9/11? If such records were maintained with phone number and caller information encrypted until needed, and decrypted only with appropriate legal authorization, would that enable Verizon and BellSouth to truthfully deny having supplied the records to the NSA? I don't think so, unless the system was in the possession of the phone companies and didn't release data to the NSA until legal authorization was obtained. But would such a system be objectionable? So long as the controls genuinely prevented abuse and legal authorizations were really obtained for each use, I don't think it would be. (Via Talking Points Memo.)

BTW, in a New York Times story in which Verizon denied turning over records to the NSA (which BellSouth has also denied), Tony Rutkowski of Verisign is quoted suggesting that the NSA may have collected long-distance phone records rather than local calls. The article notes that Verizon's denial seems to leave the door open to the possibility that MCI, which Verizon recently acquired, had turned over data. Verisign, it should be noted, has been attempting to develop a business where it acts as a third-party manager for subpoenas and wiretapping for phone companies. While the telcos have strongly attempted to block attempts by the government to expand its wiretapping capabilities into the VOIP and Internet arenas (in part on the grounds that the CALEA statutes do not cover them, and also because the infrastructure expense is placed entirely on the telcos), Verisign has supported the government's efforts, as these filed comments with the FCC make clear (red means support for expanded government wiretapping capability, blue means opposition).

You'll note that Verisign is uniformly supportive of the government, and of the three telcos that have come under fire for giving data to the NSA, two are uniformly opposed (BellSouth and SBC (now AT&T)) and one is partly opposed and partly supportive (Verizon). I'm happy to note that my employer, Global Crossing, is not only on record as opposed, but filed comments which addressed more of the issues than most of the other filers.

(UPDATE May 19, 2006: Apparently the 1990s program was called ThinThread.)

No comments: