The “Automated Query” at the Telecoms Will Include “Correlations”

In addition to Mike Rogers’ confirmation that HPSCI does not intend HR 3361 to change any of the voluminous collection programs the intelligence community does aside from the phone dragnet, his report on the bill also drew my attention to this previously public detail I had overlooked.

3 The Committee understands that ‘‘[t]he first ‘hop’ from a seed returns results including all identifiers (and their associated metadata) with a contact and/or connection with the seed. The second ‘‘hop’’ returns results that include all identifiers (and their associated metadata) with a contact and/or connection with an identifier revealed by the first ‘hop.’’ ’ In re Application of the FBI for an Order Requiring the Production of Tangible Things, BR 14–01, at 1–2 n.1 (FISC Feb. 5, 2014). [my emphasis]

This is a description of the currently desired “hop” system (though not, I don’t think, what is fully in place) connecting people through their phone — and likely, other communications — habits.

Before I get into what it says, let’s look at where it points. The language here is from a footnote on page 14 of the bill report–suggesting it’s something Mike Rogers wanted to make sure got in the Legislative Record. It cites back to the February 5, 2014 order amending the January 3 order to include the Administration’s request to have FISC review all the query terms.

I don’t believe (but could be wrong — the new FISC docket is far less usable) that we ever got the revised order. But in the order to amend the order also dated February 5, that language appears in footnote 3. The footnote itself cites to the original application for the order dated January 3. But the reference footnoted cites the January 3 order, page 11-12. The footnoted discussion is a part (or summary) of the entirely redacted description of the automated query starting on page 11 and taking up all of page 12 of the order.

That is, this language on hops provides an unclassified version of the classified description of the automated query process (the one they haven’t gotten running yet).

So this is (part of) what the government has been trying — but failing, since November 2012 — to get up and running.

Which is reportedly one of the reasons the Intelligence Community has decided it may be in their best interest to outsource this to the telecoms.

In other words this language provides clues about why the IC was willing to outsource the dragnet.

The description of the hops reveals two things that got added to the 3- or 2-hop process the government once described.

First, they’re including “associated metadata” among the things that can be further chained. Even assuming we’re only talking voice telecom information, this would include cell site location on top of the other metadata (and, in the era of smart phones, potentially far, far more).

But in addition, they’re including “connections,” in addition to contacts, with the seed.

That is, you don’t have to ever call a target to be sucked up in the phone dragnet. You can be simply “connected” to that target. The kinds of connections in question surely include dropped burner phones (that is, a matching of phones that call the same pattern of phones as an inactive phone, and therefore are really targeting the same person). They may include common geolocation. But — again, given the advent of smart phones — they could include far, far more.

So what this little footnote calls to my attention (thanks, Mike Rogers!) is that they’ve gotten approval for different kinds of chaining, beyond actual phone contacts (remember, this could include Internet contacts over a smart phone). And they’ve included metadata generally, not just phone call records, surely including geolocation, among the things they might chain on.

Which explains one incentive for outsourcing this. They can’t use geolocation for chaining in government hands. They can in private hands. There’s likely far more information for which that is true when you consider smart phones.

They can’t access that information now. They will be able to once HR 3361 outsources everything to the telecoms.

But really, this is about reform.

Update: This post was tweaked on 5/18 for clarity.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

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 the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, 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 and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

14 replies
  1. orionATL says:

    “fbi-mike” ford is too dumb to be working on anything as legally tricky and technilogically complicated as an nsa reform bill that avoids real reform.

    the questions i’d like answered are: who is feeding changes to fbi-mike’s staff? who’s sharing late-night pizza with that staff? who’s paying for that pizza?

    how many doj lawyers are assigned to write up reform?

    how many fbi lawyers?

    how many nsa lawyers?

    how many white house lawyers?

    who are the leads in this effort?

    who is the person or team who gives the final thumbs up to a proposed reform?

    i’d bet this is a house hpsci bill in name only – another instance of the executive running the congress.

  2. chronicle says:

    Reform=USG euphemism for coup d’etat. Mike Rogers is a traitor, notwithstanding #2 liar on the face of the planet. We know who #1 is.

    Meanwhile, the Dumbest Country on the Planet continues it’s quest to prove it to the world.

  3. chronicle says:

    quote”But really, this is about reform.”unquote

    Marci, your satire is as sharp as a Samurai sword.

  4. chronicle says:

    quote”They can’t access that information now. They will be able to once HR 3361 outsources everything to the telecoms.”

  5. chronicle says:

    oops. hit post before I added this…

    quote”They will be able to once HR 3361 outsources everything to their coup d’etat partners. unquote”

    There…fixed it.

  6. 0ivae says:

    Thank you. This was all about outsourcing from the get go -much as information could be retrieved via Five Eyes partners when the NSA was constitutionally restrained from doing so directly, so will that much more info be retrievable by outsourcing to private companies. Call it neo-liberalism’s “Final Solution”…

  7. JohnT says:

    OT for Mary
    I’m calling it, California Chrome will take the second leg in the Triple Crown in about 10 minutes

    • bmaz says:

      Good call. But the Belmont is always the real crucible. Got to say though, CC looked like he still had power at end of both the Derby and Preakness, so…..maybe!

      • JohnT says:

        Can’t prove it, because I was looking for streaming video. But I was gonna say the second place horse would either be Curlin, or Bayern. I kinda dug the Captain America uniform the girl jockey on Bayern was wearing, but I liked the body language of Curlin as he was walking to the gate. If you would’ve pinned me down as to who would take second, I would have said Curlin

  8. Kat Capps says:

    I did a Google search for this search term – “connection with an identifier” selector

    and found 3 mentions (besides emptywheel)

    and this pdf on the lawfare blog referencing the Klayman case

    The last pdf is a filing by the government which says:

    Under the government’s Section 215 bulk telephony-metadata program, as
    it operated when this litigation was initiated and when the district court
    issued the preliminary injunction decision now on appeal, the government
    collected – pursuant to court order – “telephony metadata,” electronic
    records containing metadata about phone calls, such as the originating and
    terminating telephone number of a call, and the time and duration of the
    call. Those records could be queried for connections by authorized NSA
    personnel based on a reasonable articulable suspicion that a particular
    phone number was associated with specific foreign terrorist organizations.
    Those queries would, in turn, reveal metadata up to three steps—or
    “hops”—out from the query term associated with foreign terrorists,
    revealing potentially valuable links between suspected terrorists and other
    unknown associates. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC)
    has repeatedly issued orders under Section 215 authorizing the collection
    and querying of metadata as established by the program

  9. Kat Capps says:

    I tried to edit my previous comment but was unable to – is that feature disabled?

    I just searched and read through a bunch of NSA related documents that discussed the phone dragnet/FISA/metadata programs searching for some definition of “connection”. As in “looking for” or “identifying” a connection.

    Other terms were defined such as relevant, but the term “connection” used in relation to terrorist connection or connection between phone numbers or to “seeds” just seems to have an assumed meaning. I was not able to find any. Is there an established legal understanding of the term “connection”?

  10. Kat Capps says:

    Another way to search the Fisa site:

    Use the following search string in google


  11. Kat Capps says:

    Last thing. The Klayman doc has an attachment.

    The document says that:

    On February 5, 2014, the government filed a motion with the FISC to
    implement the two immediate changes to the Section 215 metadata
    program announced in the President’s speech. The FISC granted that
    motion on February 5. A declassified, redacted version of the
    government’s motion and the FISC order granting the motion and revising
    the January 3 order have been publicly released and are attached to this


    Is this the documents you are looking for? Maybe they were not released separately, but instead attached to this other motion.

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