The NSA Does Know the Identity of Some of the Targets It Is Contact-Chaining

One claim the NSA has made just about every time one of its representatives has talked about the phone dragnet is that, because the dragnet contains only phone numbers, analysts don’t know who they’re chaining on. They have to give a number to the FBI, NSA people claim, where they use “additional legal process” to find the identity (more on that later).

And that may be true … up to a point.

But the claim goes far beyond even what the NSA (with an assist from friendly media partners) depicts.

Consider 60 Minutes depiction of of contact chaining (at 2:36).

Analyst Stephen Benitez showed us a technique known as “call chaining” used to develop targets for electronic surveillance in a pirate network based in Somalia.

Stephen Benitez: As you see here, I’m only allowed to chain on anything that I’ve been trained on and that I have access to. Add our known pirate. And we chain him out.

John Miller: Chain him out, for the audience, means what?

Stephen Benitez: People he’s been in contact to for those 18 days.

Stephen Benitez: One that stands out to me first would be this one here. He’s communicated with our target 12 times.

Stephen Benitez: Now we’re looking at Target B’s contacts.

John Miller: So he’s talking to three or four known pirates?

Stephen Benitez: Correct. These three here. We have direct connection to both Target A and Target B. So we’ll look at him, too, we’ll chain him out. And you see, he’s in communication with lots of known pirates. He might be the missing link that tells us everything.

John Miller: What happens in this space when a number comes up that’s in Dallas?

Stephen Benitez: So If it does come up, normally, you’ll see it as a protected number– and if you don’t have access to it, you won’t be able to look.

If a terrorist is suspected of having contacts inside the United States, the NSA can query a database that contains the metadata of every phone call made in the U.S. going back five years.

Working solely at the level of identifier, the software alerts him whether the first and second-degree contacts are “known pirates.” Given that the analyst is working on EO 12333 collected data, these targets do not have to have been reviewed for Reasonable Articulable Suspicion that they are pirates. But the system identifies them as such.

And, while this is more subtle, Benitez at least portrays the chaining process to move immediately onto “known Target B,” suggesting he may recognize precisely who that pirate is upon seeing the identifier.

I mocked the 60 Minutes piece for — among other things — showing us EO 12333 contact chaining to allay our concerns about the Section 215 phone dragnet.

But even with Section 215 dragnet, the NSA itself admits analysts might immediately recognize the identity of those they are contact chaining. This passage appears in one of their training programs on the process (see page 20).

So, for example, if you run a BR or PR/TT query on a particular RAS-approved e-mail identifier and it returns information that depicts identifier A, the RAS-approved see, was in direct contact with identifier B and the source of the metadata is BR or PR/TT, then just the fact that identifier A is communicating with identifier B is considered a BR or PR/TT query result.


So if you knew that identifier A belonged to Joe and Identifier B belonged to Sam, and the fact of that contact was derived from BR or PR/TT metadata, if you communicate orally or in writing that Joe talked to Sam, even if you don’t include the actual e-mail account or telephone numbers that were used to communicate, this is still a BR or PR/TT query result.

To guard against an analyst immediately telling colleagues who aren’t phone dragnet cleared, the NSA makes it clear she shouldn’t just call them and say Joe and Sam have been chatting.

That risk exists because the analyst “knew that identifier A belonged to Joe and Identifier B belonged to Sam” — she knew who she was chaining off of.

This is not all that surprising. If you work with a phone number or email address enough, you’re going to recognize it as the identity of the person who uses it.

Yet it does suggest analysts get enough context — either through the target identifiers they use to target someone in the first place, or from accessing the content of the communications they chain off of — to “know” the identities of some the people that come up in contact chains.

We would expect them to have this context. It surely makes their analysis better informed.

But given that they do have this context, it is completely misleading for the NSA to claim they don’t know the identity of the people they’re contact chaining.

6 replies
  1. joanneleon says:

    When working with email addresses – if it’s not a pseudonymous, one of a hundred different email addresses a person deliberately uses for anonymity, and instead it’s their work email or their official email, it’s going to be blatantly obvious who the person is. Even if it’s a nom de guerre, intel agencies have become adept at dealing with that since it’s so common.

    Also, with email traffic, I’m not sure when the “display name” gets tacked on (the name you choose to be displayed with the email metadata at the top of any email and in the inbox, etc). It’s probably coming from the contacts list, in which case the NSA wouldn’t pick it up in the email meta data, but they’re collecting contacts lists too.

    Especially in the media, everybody always talks about the identifiers in terms of phone numbers and simplifies this whole thing down as if only the telephony metadata is being collected. I’m getting more and more frustrated by that every day.

    Also the reporting is getting more and more muddled, in my view. I’m to the point where I’m not sure if they are still collecting email metadata on Americans or not — officially. I know they’re doing it through 12333 programs. I really need to either create a boiled down, cheat sheet type thing, listing what we know about what they’re collecting on Americans, or need to find an article where someone has done it. I’m referring to what’s been proven. I realize there are a lot of things we are pretty sure about, or things that are logical but not proven, or has been claimed by whistleblowers but not documented. Then there’s the case of govt used to collect it (geolocation data) but claim not to collect it now, but kept it in their data bases.

    And meanwhile, the corporate media (and a lot of others actually) acts like all they have is our telephone records data, just phone numbers, and even the ones arguing that metadata is dangerous talk about things like reverse phone number lookup.

  2. Saul Tannenbaum says:

    This seems as good a point as any to remark on how absolutely terrible some of the NSA software seems to.

    To verify that someone has the right credentials to ask what they’re asking, you go to a webform, type in their ID, snd visually compare the results?

    It’s almost as if they designed it not to leave an audit trail.

  3. What Constitution? says:

    Maybe this gets explained in the piece, which I didn’t see, but the example chosen was “pirates” because “pirates are Terraists” — because, I guess, “they’re all bahd?” I do hope somebody noted or explained the apparent ease with which targets may be conflated. Then again, piracy certainly is “other evidence of criminality”, as would similarly be, oh, bank fraud or double parking. But if the NSA feels comfortable going on TV to talk about its “Terra” tool, and pulls up Somali pirates as the example, is there a line somewhere? Wouldn’t it be worth having a reporter blink when a “terra” tool is showed off by tracking robbers? Hate to believe the conditioning has everyone past the point where anyone considers that interesting.

  4. emptywheel says:

    @Saul Tannenbaum: What? I didn’t realize that’s what that shows.

    Which is one reason it would be easy for Snowden to use other people’s identity, but that wouldn’t be limited to SysAdmins.

  5. thatvisionthing says:

    Looks to me like more pea and shells and smoke and mirrors and don’t look there. How many ways can they hide the truth? Thinking of this Bruce Schneier article I just read:

    First and foremost, the surveillance state is robust. It is robust politically, legally, and technically. I can name three different NSA programs to collect Gmail user data. These programs are based on three different technical eavesdropping capabilities. They rely on three different legal authorities. They involve collaborations with three different companies. And this is just Gmail. The same is true for cell phone call records, Internet chats, cell-phone location data.

    Second, the NSA continues to lie about its capabilities. It hides behind tortured interpretations of words like “collect,” “incidentally,” “target,” and “directed.” It cloaks programs in multiple code names to obscure their full extent and capabilities. Officials testify that a particular surveillance activity is not done under one particular program or authority, conveniently omitting that it is done under some other program or authority.

    Third, U.S. government surveillance is not just about the NSA. The Snowden documents have given us extraordinary details about the NSA’s activities, but we now know that the CIA, NRO, FBI, DEA, and local police all engage in ubiquitous surveillance using the same sorts of eavesdropping tools, and that they regularly share information with each other.

    Also, this in your post…

    They have to give a number to the FBI, NSA people claim, where they use “additional legal process” to find the identity (more on that later).

    …made me remember this from last June, right after the first Snowden revelation about the Verizon court order:

    Marcy Wheeler: What we know from what Glenn published is that the FBI provides the explanation for it and then the data goes right into NSA anyway. The FBI applied for the order, it was granted to the FBI, but the order told Verizon to deliver the data to NSA. So one of the things it reveals is how they’re getting around certain restrictions on the NSA, and they’re basically turning the FBI into a front.

    Anyway, I can’t see all the stuff you’re discussing and I don’t know if I’m in the ballpark, but that’s where my mind goes. What a fun game of trapdoors, why would they ever give it up? And it pays so well too — imagine what the ROI is per “terrorist” or “pirate” identified without trial or challenge.

  6. spongebrain says:

    @thatvisionthing: “And it pays so well too — imagine what the ROI is per ‘terrorist’ or ‘pirate’ identified without trial or challenge.” Yes, the ROI is as certain as a AAA-rated, mortgage-backed security, before everybody else gets left holding the bag.

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