Omaha! Omaha! The Alert that Won’t Alert

The FISA Court just released the January 3, 2014 phone dragnet order, DOJ’s motion to amend it to meet Obama’s new dragnet terms, and the approval for that.

But those changes are of the least interest in these documents. I’ll explain the loophole to the changes tomorrow.

For now, consider that the NSA reportedly can’t get its automated chaining program to work. In the motion to amend, footnote 12 — which modifies part of some entirely redacted paragraphs describing its new automated alert approved back in 2012 — reads:

The Court understands that to date NSA has not implemented, and for the duration of this authorization will not as a technical matter be in a position to implement, the automated query process authorized by prior orders of this Court for analytical purposes. Accordingly, this amendment to the Primary Order authorizes the use of this automated query process for development and testing purposes only. No query results from such testing shall be made available for analytic purposes. Use of this automated query process for analytical purposes requires further order of this Court.

PCLOB describes this automated alert this way.

In 2012, the FISA court approved a new and automated method of performing queries, one that is associated with a new infrastructure implemented by the NSA to process its calling records.68 The essence of this new process is that, instead of waiting for individual analysts to perform manual queries of particular selection terms that have been RAS approved, the NSA’s database periodically performs queries on all RAS-approved seed terms, up to three hops away from the approved seeds. The database places the results of these queries together in a repository called the “corporate store.”

It has been 15 months since FISC approved this alert, but NSA still can’t get it working.

I suspect this is the root of the stories claiming NSA can only access 30% of US phone records.

And I think it probably does have to do with cell data and what they get from other programs — just not in the way the reports said it did.

I’ll explain that in a follow-up.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

5 replies
  1. Snoopdido says:

    By the phrase “NSA still can’t get it working” one assumes various technical problems with the NSA’s automated query system of phone records.

    However, it may be that those technical problems are more legal problems than technical. That is, the NSA keeps pumping out illegally collected information with their automated query system of phone records.

    I guess we’ll have to stay tuned.

  2. LeMoyne says:

    If its ‘broken’ and they are ‘trying to fix it’ they can operate in a ‘development and testing’ minimization regime that looks alot more like maximization. lol – the orange barrel excuse to run the entire program in a loophole. Definitely saying tuned.

  3. emptywheel says:

    @Snoopdido: Yes. I think the problem is the same one they had with the Internet metadata. There’s no way to do it — under the gerry rigged legal arguments they’ve used to authorize it — within the bounds laid out.

  4. orionATL says:

    15 months for nsa’s very talented technical staff to fix a computer/computer systems/database/spying technology problem ?

    piece of cake.

    so whatever the problem(s) is, it’s persistence for 15 months is far less likely to be due to a technical problem than an organizational or legal one.

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