Ancient History: December 2012 in the Dragnet

PCLOB tells us that the FISA Court approved a new automated query system (versions appear to have been in development for years, and it replaced the automated alert system from 2009) in late 2012 that permitted all the 3-degree contact chains off all RAS-approved identifiers to be dumped into the corporate store at once where they can be combined with data collected under other authorities (presumably including both EO 12333 and FAA) for further analysis.

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 perform s 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.”

The ultimate result of the automated query process is a repository, the corporate store, containing the records of all telephone calls that are within three “hops” of every currently approved selection term. 69 Authorized analysts looking to conduct intelligence analysis may then use the records in the corporate store, instead of searching the full repository of records.

According to the FISA court’s orders, records that have been moved into the corporate store may be searched by authorized personnel “for valid foreign intelligence purposes, without the requirement that those searches use only RAS – approved selection terms.” 71 Analysts therefore can query the records in the corporate store with terms that are not reasonably suspected of association with terrorism. They also are permitted to analyze records in the corporate store through means other than individual contact-chaining queries that begin with a single selection term: because the records in the corporate store all stem from RAS-approved queries , the agency is allowed to apply other analytic methods and techniques to the query results. 72 For instance, such calling records may be integrated with data acquired under other authorities for further analysis. The FISA court’s orders expressly state that the NSA may apply “the full range” of signals intelligence analytic tradecraft to the calling records that are responsive to a query, which includes every record in the corporate store.

(While I didn’t know the date, I have been pointing the extent to which corporate store data can be analyzed for some time, but thankfully the PCLOB report has finally led others to take notice.)

On December 27, 2012, Jeff Merkley gave a speech in support of his amendment to the FISA Amendments Act that would push to make FISC decisions public. It referenced both the backdoor loophole (which John Bates extended to NSA and CIA in 2011, was implemented in 2012, and affirmed by the Senate Intelligence Committee in June 2012) and the language underlying the phone dragnet. Merkley suggested the government might use these secret interpretations to conduct wide open spying on Americans.

If it is possible that our intelligence agencies are using the law to collect and use the communications of Americans without a warrant, that is a problem. Of course, we cannot reach conclusions about that in this forum because this is an unclassified discussion.

My colleagues Senator Wyden and Senator Udall, who serve on Intelligence, have discussed the loophole in the current law that allows the potential of backdoor searches. This could allow the government to effectively use warrantless searches for law-abiding Americans. Senator Wyden has an amendment that relates to closing that loophole. Congress never intended the intelligence community to have a huge database to sift through without first getting a regular probable cause warrant, but because we do not have the details of exactly how this proceeds and we cannot debate in a public forum those details, then we are stuck with wrestling with the fact that we need to have the sorts of protections and efforts to close loopholes that Senator Wyden has put forward.


Let me show an example of a passage. Here is a passage about what information can be collected: “ ….. reasonable grounds to believe that the tangible things sought are relevant to an authorized investigation (other than a threat assessment) conducted in accordance with subsection (a)(2),” and so on.

Let me stress these words: “relevant to an authorized investigation.”

There are ongoing investigations, multitude investigations about the conduct of individuals and groups around this planet, and one could make the argument that any information in the world helps frame an understanding of what these foreign groups are doing. So certainly there has been some FISA Court decision about what “relevant to an authorized investigation” means or what “tangible things” means. Is this a gateway that is thrown wide open to any level of spying on Americans or is it not? Is it tightly constrained in understanding what this balance of the fourth amendment is? We do not know the answer to that. We should be able to know. If we believe that an administration and the secret court have gone in a direction incompatible with our understanding of what we were seeking to defend, then that would enable us to have that debate here about whether we tighten the language of the law in accordance with such an interpretation. Again, is this an open gateway to any information anywhere in the world, anytime, on anyone or is it a very narrow gate? We do not know. [my emphasis]

Also in December 2012, the White House wrote a set of talking points warning, in part, that if Congress aligned the expiration dates of FAA with the PATRIOT Act it might lead some people to think they were connected.

Aligning FAA with expiration of provisions of the Patriot Act risks confusing distinct issues.

Now why is it, do you think, that the White House was so worried, when it was refusing to release information about either the backdoor loophole or the phone dragnet that serves as an index to tell NSA which content to access, that we might think PATRIOT had some tie to FAA?

The relationship between the dragnet and content has, as NSA’s SID Director Theresa Shea represented in declarations last year, been in place for some time. But it sure seems like it got new life in 2012, just as the Administration got Congress to reauthorize one half of the whole contraption.

12 replies
  1. Frank33 says:

    Merkley suggested the government might use these secret interpretations to conduct wide open spying on Americans.

    There is no doubt the Universal Dragnet is used to attack American citizens for the benefit of the One Percent, and their war profiteering. Terrorists include political activists, especially political activists who program computers without NSA approval. Andrea Shepard, who lives in Seattle, is a “core Tor developer”.

    Andrea was targeted in a most special way. She ordered a computer from Santa Ana CA to Seattle WA. the company AMAZON sent it on a 3000 mile detour.

    Instead of shipping the computer directly from the Amazon storage facility in Santa Ana, California, to Shepard in Seattle, the package was first dispatched to Dulles, Virginia. From Dulles, it moved another four times around the military and intelligence belt in suburban Washington DC, finally landing in Alexandria at 11:03 am on January 23.

    Could AMAZON have made a mistake? At least they recorded the long journey of this very special computer. What do you do with a computer that may have state of the art NSA hardware and software? I know! Put it for sale on eBay as a collector’s item!

    If I want to buy a computer, I am going to Microcenter.

  2. P J Evans says:

    Package tracking has its uses. (I love the one: ‘package has left a carrier facility’. All the rest say ‘the carrier facility’.)

  3. Frank33 says:

    @P J Evans:

    I have my rock and roll from 1982 to explain and predict this. The Alan Parsons Project, “Eye in the Sky”.

    I am the eye in the sky
    Looking at you
    I can read your mind
    I am the maker of rules
    Dealing with fools
    I can cheat you blind
    And I don’t need to see any more
    To know that
    I can read your mind, I can read your mind

  4. P J Evans says:

    I bought a new computer last fall. I went to Costco’s website. It’s a local company (about forty miles away by road). If it had gone through Dulles, I would have been all over the company.

  5. spongebrain says:


    Musicians and other artists, as a whole, seem to have a knack for sensing the future well in advance of everybody else. They may not be able to explain why, but nevertheless articulate, subconsciously perhaps, events heading in a certain direction.

  6. thatvisionthing says:

    @Frank33: HP wiped out my laptop when I sent it back to have a popped-off key face fixed. (“Key face connected to the keypad, keypad connected to the motherboard, had to…”) Tech people I’ve run into later tell me no they didn’t have to, but what do I know except I hate them and then hate them more because the Microsoft backup done with the laptop’s native software would not restore and HP would not help and I lost 12 DVDs of data. I still hate them, hate them, I mean I hate them, I really really hate them, and when that laptop died I would not buy another HP. And I still hate Microsoft too. Just telling the world: “I will not buy HP or Microsoft.” Personal experience of a tech dummy.

    I will not buy HP or Microsoft.
    I will not buy HP or Microsoft.
    I will not buy HP or Microsoft.
    I will not buy HP or Microsoft.
    I will not buy HP or Microsoft.
    I will not buy HP or Microsoft.
    I will not buy HP or Microsoft.

    (And now I’m thinking, ME? My laptop? What would they do to my laptop?)

    There is a fabulous market opportunity here for the nation that produces trustworthy computers and can deliver them securely, because thank you NSA, it isn’t and won’t be us.

  7. spongebrain says:


    There are antitrust laws in place; but, and particularly with regard to Microsoft, for whatever reason *cough* they’re simply not enforced. Overall, quality of product and thus productivity suffer. So let us have a toast of un-quality Victory Gin, to the overall quality of life that might have been.

  8. OweMySoulToCorporateStore says:

    …places the results of these queries together in a repository called the “corporate store.”

    Very odd. 1000 pages of leaks and no mention of corporate store nor its code name (suggestion: BOOZITUPFORCHRISSAIC). Seems like it should have had a prominent role in the the 24 unredacted page “DNR and DNI Co-Travel Analytics” which laid out NSA’s migration to the cloud and storage within its file system. That was penned on 1 Oct 12 by NSA’s S2I5 Advanced Analysis Division.

    Not referencingh CIA, that would be called company store. Store — no freebies at a store, sounds like pay-per-view at a trusted corporate partner.

    Since the parking lot at Ft Meade empties out mid-afternoon Friday, a lot of CPUs are idled, so it does make sense to precompute out to three hops in case an analyst should ever need it, cuts latency. Just as a full-take haystack makes sense, as you never know what you might need (Cheney).

    Like that tree falling silently in the forest, having a complete dossier on everyone 3 hops out from a 100k targets doesn’t count until a person looks at it.

Comments are closed.