Government Tapping CONTENT, Not Just Metadata … Using Bogus “Secret Interpretation” of Patriot Act
We reported in 2008 that foreign companies have had key roles scooping up Americans’ communications for the NSA:
At least two foreign companies play key roles in processing the information.
Specifically, an Israeli company called Narus processes all of the information tapped by AT &T (AT & T taps, and gives to the NSA, copies of all phone calls it processes), and an Israeli company called Verint processes information tapped by Verizon (Verizon also taps, and gives to the NSA, all of its calls).
Business Insider notes today:
The newest information regarding the NSA domestic spying scandal raises an important question: If America’s tech giants didn’t ‘participate knowingly’ in the dragnet of electronic communication, how does the NSA get all of their data?
One theory: the NSA hired two secretive Israeli companies to wiretap the U.S. telecommunications network.
In April 2012 Wired’s James Bamford — author of the book “The Shadow Factory: The NSA from 9/11 to the Eavesdropping on America” — reported that two companies with extensive links to Israel’s intelligence service provided hardware and software the U.S. telecommunications network for the National Security Agency (NSA).
By doing so, this would imply, companies like Facebook and Google don’t have to explicitly provide the NSA with access to their servers because major Internet Service Providers (ISPs) such as AT&T and Verizon already allows the U.S. signals intelligence agency to eavesdrop on all of their data anyway.
From Bamford (emphasis ours):
Klein, an engineer, discovered the “secret room” at AT&T central office in San Francisco, through which the NSA actively “vacuumed up Internet and phone-call data from ordinary Americans with the cooperation of AT&T” through the wiretapping rooms, emphasizing that “much of the data sent through AT&T to the NSA was purely domestic.”
Both Verint and Narus were founded in Israel in the 1990s.
“Anything that comes through (an internet protocol network), we can record,” Steve Bannerman, marketing vice president of Narus, a Mountain View, California company, said. “We can reconstruct all of their e-mails along with attachments, see what web pages they clicked on, we can reconstruct their (voice over internet protocol) calls.”
With a telecom wiretap the NSA only needs companies like Microsoft, Google, and Apple to passively participate while the agency to intercepts, stores, and analyzes their communication data. The indirect nature of the agreement would provide tech giants with plausible deniability.
And having a foreign contractor bug the telecom grid would mean that the NSA gained access to most of the domestic traffic flowing through the U.S. without technically doing it themselves.
This would provide the NSA, whose official mission is to spy on foreign communications, with plausible deniability regarding domestic snooping.
The reason that Business Insider is speculating about the use of private Israeli companies to thwart the law is that 2 high-ranking members of the Senate Intelligence Committee – Senators Wyden and Udall – have long said that the government has adopted a secret interpretation of section 215 of the Patriot Act which would shock Americans, because it provides a breathtakingly wide program of spying.
Last December, top NSA whistleblower William Binney – a 32-year NSA veteran with the title of senior technical director, who headed the agency’s global digital data gathering program (featured in a New York Times documentary, and the source for much of what we know about NSA spying) – said that the government is using a secret interpretation of Section 215 of the Patriot Act which allows the government to obtain:
Any data in any third party, like any commercial data that’s held about U.S. citizens ….
(relevant quote starts at 4:19).
I called Binney to find out what he meant.
I began by asking Binney if Business Insider’s speculation was correct. Specifically, I asked Binney if the government’s secret interpretation of Section 215 of the Patriot Act was that a foreign company – like Narus, for example – could vacuum up information on Americans, and then the NSA would obtain that data under the excuse of spying on foreign entities … i.e. an Israeli company.
Binney replied no … it was broader than that.
Binney explained that the government is taking the position that it can gather and use any information about American citizens living on U.S. soil if it comes from:
Any service provider … any third party … any commercial company – like a telecom or internet service provider, libraries, medical companies – holding data about anyone, any U.S. citizen or anyone else.
I followed up to make sure I understood what Binney was saying, asking whether the government’s secret interpretation of Section 215 of the Patriot Act was that the government could use any information as long as it came from a private company … foreign or domestic. In other words, the government is using the antiquated, bogus legal argument that it was not using its governmental powers (called “acting under color of law” by judges), but that it was private companies just doing their thing (which the government happened to order all of the private companies to collect and fork over).
Binney confirmed that this was correct. This is what the phone company spying program and the Prism program – the government spying on big Internet companies – is based upon. Since all digital communications go through private company networks, websites or other systems, the government just demands that all of the companies turn them over.
Let’s use an analogy to understand how bogus this interpretation of the Patriot Act is. This argument is analogous to a Congressman hiring a hit man to shoot someone asking too many questions, and loaning him his gun to carry out the deed … and then later saying “I didn’t do it, it was that private citizen!” That wouldn’t pass the laugh test even at an unaccredited, web-based law school offered through a porn site.
I then asked the NSA veteran if the government’s claim that it is only spying on metadata – and not content – was correct. We have extensively documented that the government is likely recording content as well. (And the government has previously admitted to “accidentally” collecting more information on Americans than was legal, and then gagged the judges so they couldn’t disclose the nature or extent of the violations.)
Binney said that was not true; the government is gathering everything, including content.
Binney explained – as he has many times before – that the government is storing everything, and creating a searchable database … to be used whenever it wants, for any purpose it wants (even just going after someone it doesn’t like).
Binney said that former FBI counter-terrorism agent Tim Clemente is correct when he says that no digital data is safe (Clemente says that all digital communications are being recorded).
Binney gave me an idea of how powerful Narus recording systems are. There are probably 18 of them around the country, and they can each record 10 gigabytes of data – the equivalent of a million and a quarter emails with 1,000 characters each – per second.
Binney next confirmed the statement of the author of the Patriot Act – Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner – that the NSA spying programs violate the Patriot Act. After all, the Patriot Act is focused on spying on external threats … not on Americans.
Binney asked rhetorically: “How can an American court [FISA or otherwise] tell telecoms to cough up all domestic data?!”
Update: Binney sent the following clarifying email about content collection:
It’s clear to me that they are collecting most e-mail in full plus other text type data on the web.
As for phone calls, I don’t think they would record/transcribe the approximately 3 billion US-to-US calls every day. It’s more likely that they are recording and transcribing calls made by the 500,000 to 1,000,000 targets in the US and the world.