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NSA Snoops on Foreign Country, Recording Every Call Made

The Washington Post published a new article based on material exposed by Edward Snowden, which claims the NSA has created a program called MYSTIC.  It records and collects every voice communication made in an unnamed foreign country.  The data is retained for 30 days and allows the agency to review any conversation by anyone made anywhere in the country.  This is far different from previous iterations of NSA spying in which it targeted specific suspects or in which it only collected the metadata of calls made in this country.  In this project, everything is vacuumed up and stored for potential use.

The reporters specifically do not name the country which is targeted by the NSA.  They also say that another five countries are future targets.

I queried my regular confidential Israeli source thinking the target could be Israel.  Though on second thought I realized I was going in an entirely wrong direction, since the NSA wants such data not from allies, but from hostile countries.  The response my source offered is, I think, equally dubious, but for different reasons.  He says that it is Iran.

On the one hand, this would make perfect sense since the U.S. would undoubtedly love to have records of every phone call made inside Iran.  However two passages in the article indicate a concern among the reporters, if not the NSA itself, that it would be collecting phone calls made by U.S. citizens inside the foreign country:

Ubiquitous voice surveillance, even overseas, pulls in a great deal of content from Americans who telephone, visit and work in the target country…

Present and former U.S. officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity to provide context for a classified program, acknowledged that large numbers of conversations involving Americans would be gathered from the country where RETRO operates.

There are almost no American’s inside Iran, so I don’t think this country is the one in which MYSTIC is currently operating (though it may be one of the five others in which the NSA plans to implement MYSTIC).  But there are two other countries which are much more likely targets and in which there are many Americans: China and Russia.  We undoubtedly would love to have the capability to suck up all the calls in either one of those countries.  Though the sheer volume of data involved is mind-boggling.  This project alone would justify the mega-storage center the NSA is building in Utah.

Another rumor I heard is that the target is a European country, though I don’t understand why the NSA would be mucking around with U.S. allies (though it didn’t stop it from snooping on Angela Merkel’s phone calls!).

Whichever country it is, this indicates the enormous power the NSA has to intrude not just into the lives of individuals, foreign leaders, or even entire discrete networks, but the telecommunications of an entire country.  Imagine the intrusive technology that would be necessary to carry off such a feat.  Consider also that despite attempts by this country to safeguard its communications network, the NSA has broken it wide open.  This is truly frightening and indicates a national security state run rampant.  There is truly no oversight and no one has the power to rein it in.  No one is willing to tell the NSA that we will reap what we sow.  As we do to others they will do to us.

Finally, the NY Times today ran a chilling story showing the chickens are already coming home to roost.  When Snowden’s information was first published I predicted that it would spell disaster for U.S. technology and telecommunication companies.  These companies like Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook, etc. were slow to realize this.  They were also slow to protest the government’s co-optation of their networks.  Even now, Marc Zuckerberg’s chief request of Pres. Obama is that he made NSA procedures “more transparent.”  Hell, I think they’re transparent enough–they want everything you have, everything they can get their hands on.  Isn’t that transparent enough?  The goal shouldn’t be to make things more transparent.  The goal should be to rein in the system run amok and stop the excesses.

The Times article projected that these companies would lost between $35-180-billion in revenue this year to overseas companies.  The loss comes as a result of customers who no longer trust their data to be safe from prying eyes.  It comes from foreign companies refusing to do business with IBM, Microsoft, etc. because they’ve already show too much pliancy to the NSA.  It’s far safer for companies to use foreign vendors who do not have to obey NSA supeonas.

We have only ourselves to blame for this debacle.  If we don’t clean up our act the U.S. will slip from its leading edge in the high technology field.  We will quickly become also-rans.  Foreign companies will flee from us.  Foreign engineers will prefer working for companies in which their expertise will not be appropriated by national intelligence agencies.  We may be able to stop this from happening.  But only with a president or Congressional leadership unafraid to take on the spooks and intelligence mandarin class.  Obama clearly isn’t that person.  I doubt Feinstein is either, though she’s showing more spunk lately.

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{ 6 comments… add one }
  • Fred Plester March 22, 2014, 5:22 AM

    May be one of the Baltic States: there is no widespread pro-Russian sentiment in any of them, but there are a few Russians about, which Russia Today might spin up into a “persecuted Russian Majority” immediately prior to an invasion. I seriously think that recording all voice calls in Russia or China would be too much for the NSA, and I am not sure they’d be able to access all of the landline network, either.

    I suspect it’s Latvia, that the Latvian government does not actually object, and that the five other states will be adjoining ones.

    It’s never going to be India, because there are too many languages as well as to many calls.

  • Shoshana March 22, 2014, 9:50 AM

    I am quite sure that the US is targeting hostile, backwards countries with primitive phone systems like Afghanistan and Yemen.

    • Richard Silverstein March 23, 2014, 12:01 AM

      @ Shoshana:

      hostile, backwards countries…like Afghanistan and Yemen.

      I wonder if Afghanis and Yemenis see their country in the same way you do? BTW, there is probably only a cell phone system operating in both places & cell phones are pretty easy to hack.

      • Fred Plester March 23, 2014, 2:40 PM

        The NSA can’t do magic.
        Even in a cell phone system, unless you had access to the actual distribution network, you couldn’t guarantee to monitor every call by eavesdropping the signals. You need to have base stations actively copying the call to you, so “recording everything” needs a smallish country and a cooperative telecoms company or government.

    • David March 23, 2014, 1:02 AM

      Nope. It’s Israel, the most hostile, politically backwards country I know.

      • Fred Plester March 23, 2014, 2:42 PM

        Just out of interest: have you ever visited Scotland in a car which had a St George’s Cross sticker on the number plate?

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