This is going to be a weedy post in which I look at a key detail revealed by 2010 NSA Inspector General reviews of the Section 215 phone dragnet. The document was liberated by Charlie Savage last year.
At issue is the government’s description, in the period after the Snowden leaks, of what kind of searches it did on the Section 215 phone dragnet. The searches the government did on Section 215 dragnet data are critical to understanding a number of things: the reasons the parallel Internet dragnet probably got shut down in 2011, the squeals from people like Marco Rubio about things the government lost in shutting down the dragnet, and the likely scope of collection under USA Freedom Act.
Throughout the discussion of the phone dragnet, the administration claimed it was used for “contact chaining” — that is, exclusively to show who was within 3 (and starting in 2014, 2) degrees of separation, by phone calls [or texts, see update] made, from a suspected terrorist associate.
Here’s how the administration’s white paper on the program described it in 2013.
This telephony metadata is important to the Government because, by analyzing it, the Government can determine whether known or suspected terrorist operatives have been in contact with other persons who may be engaged in terrorist activities, including persons and activities within the United States. The program is carefully limited to this purpose: it is not lawful for anyone to query the bulk telephony metadata for any purpose other than counterterrorism, and Court-imposed rules strictly limit all such queries.
Though some claims to Congress and the press were even more definitive that this was just about contact chaining.
The documents on the 2009 violations released under FOIA made it clear that, historically at least, querying wasn’t limited to contact chaining. Almost every reference in these documents to the scope of the program includes a redaction after “contact chaining” in the description of the allowable queries. Here’s one of many from the government’s first response to Reggie Walton’s questions about the program.
The redaction is probably something like “pattern analysis.”
Because the NSA was basically treating all Section 215 data according to the rules governing EO 12333 in 2009 (indeed, at the beginning of this period, analysts couldn’t distinguish the source of the two authorizations), it subjected the data to a number of processes that did not fit under the authorization in the FISC orders — things like counts of all contacts and automatic chaining on identifiers believed to be the same user as one deemed to have met the Reasonable Articulable Standard. The End to End report finished in summer 2009 described one after another of these processes being shut down (though making it clear it wanted to resume them once it obtained FISC authorization). But even in these discussions, that redaction after “contact chaining” remained.
Even in spite of this persistent redaction, the public claims this was about contact chaining gave the impression that the pattern analysis not specifically authorized by the dragnet orders also got shut down.
The IG Reports that Savage liberated gives a better sense of precisely what the NSA was doing after it cleared up all its violations in 2009.
The Reports were ordered up by the FISC and covered an entire year of production (there was a counterpart of the Internet dragnet side, which was largely useless since so much of that dragnet got shut down around October 30, 2009 and remained shut down during this review period).
The show several things:
It’s the last item of interest here.
The first thing to understand about the phone dragnet data is it could be queried two places: the analyst front-end (the name of which is always redacted), and a “Transaction Database” that got replaced with something else in 2011. (336)
Basically, when the NSA did intake on data received from the telecoms, it would create a table of each and every record (which is I guess where the “transaction” name came from), while also making sure the telecoms didn’t send illegal data like credit card information.
Doing queries in the Transaction Database bypassed search restrictions. The March 2010 audit discovered a tech had done a query in the Transaction Database using a selector the RAS approval (meaning NSA had determined there was reasonable articulable suspicion that the selector had some tie to designated terrorist groups and/or Iran) of which had expired. The response to that violation, which NSA didn’t agree was a violation, was to move that tech function into a different department at NSA, away from the analyst function, which would do nothing to limit such restriction free queries, but would put a wall between analysts and techs, making it harder for analysts to ask techs to perform queries they would be unable to do.
Because the direct queries done for data integrity purposes were not subject to auditing under the phone dragnet orders, the monthly reports distinguished between those and analyst queries, the latter of which were audited to be sure they were RAS approved. But as the April 2010 report and subsequent audits showed, analysts also would do an “ident lookup.” (83)
The report provided this classified/Five Eyes description of “ident lookups.”
The Emphatic Access Restriction was a tool implemented in 2009 to ensure that analysts only did queries on RAS-approved selectors. What this detail reveals is that, rather than consulting a running list somewhere to see whether a selector was RAS approved, analysts would instead try to query, and if the query failed, that’s how they would learn the selector was not RAS approved.
We can’t be sure, but that suggests RAS approval went beyond simple one-to-one matching of identifiers. It’s possible an ident lookup needed to query the database to see if the data showed a given selector (say, a SIM card) matched another selector (say, a phone number) which had been RAS approved. It might go even further, given that NSA had automatically done searches on “correlated” numbers (that is, on a second phone number deemed to belong to the same person as the approved primary number that had been RAS approved). At least, that’s something NSA had done until 2009 and said it wanted to resume.
In other words, the fact that an ident lookup query queried the data and not just a list of approved selectors suggests it did more than just cross-check the RAS approval list: at some level it must tested the multiple selectors associated with one user to see if the underlying selectors were, by dint of the user himself being approved, themselves approved.
Indent lookups appear fairly often in these IG reports. Less frequent is an entirely redacted kind of query such as described but redacted in the September 2010 report. (166)
The footnote description of that query is classified Top Secret NOFORN and entirely redacted.
I have no idea what that query would be, but it’s clear it is done on the analyst facing interface, and only on RAS approved selectors.
The timing of this third query is interesting. Such queries appear in the September and October 2010 audits. That was a period when, in the wake of the July 2010 John Bates approval to resume the Internet dragnet, they were aligning the two programs again (or perhaps even more closely than they had been in 2009). It also appears after a new selector tracking tool got introduced in June 2010. That said, I’m unaware of anything in the phone dragnet orders that would have expanded the kinds of queries permitted on the phone dragnet data.
We know they had used the phone dragnet until 2009 to track burner phones (that is, matching calling patterns of selectors unknown to have a connection to determine which was a user’s new phone). We know that in November 2012, FISC approved an automated query process, though NSA never managed to implement it technically before Obama decided to shut down the dragnet. We also know that in 2014 they started admitting they were also doing “connection” chaining (which may be burner phone matching or may be matching of selectors). All are changes that might relate to more extensive non-chain querying.
We also don’t know whether this kind of query persisted from 2010 until last year, when the dragnet got shut down. I think it possible that the reasons they shut down the Internet dragnet in 2011 may have implicated the phone dragnet.
The point, though, is that at least by 2010, NSA was doing non-chain queries of the entire dragnet dataset that it considered to be approved under the phone dragnet orders. That suggests by that point, NSA was using the bulk set as a set already (or, more accurately, again, after the 2009 violations) by September 2010.
Last March James Clapper explained the need to retain records for a period of time, he justified it by saying you needed the historical data to discern patterns.
Q: And just to be clear, with the private providers maintaining that data, do you feel you’ve lost an important tool?
Clapper: Not necessarily. It will depend though, for one, retention period. I think, given the attitude today of the providers, they will probably do all they can to minimize the retention period. Which of course, from our standpoint, lessens the utility of the data, because you do need some — and we can prove this statistically — you do need some historical data in order to, if you’re gonna discern a pattern. And again, 215 to me, is much like my fire insurance policy. You know, my house has never burned down but every year I buy fire insurance just in case.
This would be consistent with the efforts to use the bulk dataset to find burner identities, at a minimum. It would also be consistent with Marco Rubio et al’s squeals about needing the historical data. And it would be consistent with the invocation of the National Academy of Sciences report on bulk data (though not on the phone dragnet), which NSA’s General Counsel raised in a Lawfare post today.
In other words, contrary to public suggestions, it appears NSA was using the phone dragnet to conduct pattern analysis that required the bulk dataset. That’s not surprising, though it is something the NSA suggested they weren’t doing.
They surely are still doing that on the larger EO 12333 dataset, along with a lot more complex kinds of analysis. But it seems some, like Rubio, either think we need to return to such bulk pattern analysis, or has used the San Bernardino attack to call to resume more intrusive spying.
Update: One of the other things the IG Reports make clear is that NSA was (unsurprisingly) collecting records of non-simultaneous telephone transactions. That became an issue when, in 2011, NSA started to age-off 5 year old data, because they would have some communication chains that reflected communications that were more than 5 years old but which were obtained less than 5 years before.
My guess is this reflects texting chains that continued across days or weeks.
Back when I reviewed the goodies the House Intelligence Committee had given James Clapper in this year’s Intelligence Authorization, I noted the bill eliminated this report on potential conflicts in outside employment (see clause u).
The Director of National Intelligence shall annually submit to the congressional intelligence committees a report describing all outside employment for officers and employees of elements of the intelligence community that was authorized by the head of an element of the intelligence community during the preceding calendar year.
That change — which will make it harder for people to track the kinds of conflicts of interest a number of top NSA officials recently got caught with — survived in the Omnibus into which the Intelligence Authorization got integrated. Which probably means we’ll be seeing more spooks getting paid by contractors on the side.
Yesterday, WaPo described a reporting requirement that had been in the Senate Intelligence Authorization, but got watered down in the Omnibus: a report on promotions revealing whether those being promoted were “unfit or unqualified.”
Under a provision drafted by the Senate Intelligence Committee this year, intelligence agencies would have been required to regularly provide names of those being promoted to top positions and disclose any “significant and credible information to suggest that the individual is unfit or unqualified.”
More recently, a top CIA manager who had been removed from his job for abusive treatment of subordinates was reinstated this year as deputy chief for counterintelligence at the Counterterrorism Center.
U.S. officials offered multiple explanations for Clapper’s objections. Several said that his main concern was the bureaucratic workload that would be generated by legislation requiring so much detail about potentially hundreds of senior employees across the U.S. intelligence community.
But others said that U.S. spy chiefs chafed at the idea of subjecting their top officials to such congressional scrutiny and went so far as to warn that candidates for certain jobs would probably withdraw.
Lawmakers were told that “some intelligence personnel would be reluctant to seek promotions out of concern that information about them would be presented to the Hill,” said a U.S. official involved in the discussions.
So he balked and Congress watered down the requirement. Here’s what remains of the measure:
(a) DIRECTIVE REQUIRED.—The Director of National Intelligence shall issue a directive containing a written policy for the timely notification to the congressional intelligence committees of the identities of individuals occupying senior level positions within the intelligence community.
The fine print on the requirement probably provides ways for Clapper to squish out of it in many cases by invoking covert status (which, in turn, likely means CIA will expand its current practice of pretending top managers are covert to protect them from scrutiny) or otherwise claiming senior people are not sufficiently senior to require notice.
So rather than preventing the CIA and other agencies from promoting abusive incompetents, the measure will likely lead to them being hidden further behind CIA’s secrecy.
Which is interesting, especially given another Intel Authorization measure that survived in the Omnibus, that I earlier described as an effort to make sure spooks and those in sensitive positions aren’t joining EFF or similar organizations.
The committee description of this section explains it will require DNI to do more checks on spooks (actually spooks and “sensitive” positions, which isn’t full clearance).
Section 306 directs the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) to develop and implement a plan for eliminating the backlog of overdue periodic investigations, and further requires the DNI to direct each agency to implement a program to provide enhanced security review to individuals determined eligible for access to classified information or eligible to hold a sensitive position.
These enhanced personnel security programs will integrate information relevant and appropriate for determining an individual’s suitability for access to classified information; be conducted at least 2 times every 5 years; and commence not later than 5 years after the date of enactment of the Fiscal Year 2016 Intelligence Authorization Act, or the elimination of the backlog of overdue periodic investigations, whichever occurs first.
Among the things ODNI will use to investigate its spooks are social media, commercial data sources, and credit reports. Among the things it is supposed to track is “change in ideology.” I’m guessing they’ll do special checks for EFF stickers and hoodies, which Snowden is known to have worn without much notice from NSA.
Remember, one complaint Clapper had about the gutted requirement he identify the abusive incompetents being promoted at intelligence agencies is the added bureaucracy of tracking just those being promoted in management ranks. But he apparently had no problem with a requirement that ODNI track the social media of everyone at all agencies to make sure they’re going to keep secrets and don’t harbor any “ideology” changes like support for the Bill of Rights.
That is, Clapper’s perfectly willing to expand his bureaucracy to look for leakers, but not to weed out the dangerously incompetent people ordering potential leakers around.
Apparently, to James Clapper, people who might leak about those unfit for management are more dangerous insider threats than having entire centers run by people unfit for management.
Last night, Marco Rubio went on Fox News to try to fear-monger over the phone dragnet again.
He repeated the claim that the AP also idiotically parroted uncritically — that the government can only get three years of records for the culprits in the San Bernardino attack.
In the case of these individuals that conducted this attack, we cannot see any phone records for the first three years in which — you can only see them up to three years. You’ll not be able to see the full five-year picture.
Again, he’s ignoring the AT&T backbone records that cover virtually all of Syed Rizwan Farook’s 28-year life that are available, that 215 phone dragnet could never have covered Tashfeen Malik’s time in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, and that EO 12333 collection not only would cover Malik’s time before she came to the US, but would also include Farook’s international calls going back well over 5 years.
So he’s either an idiot or he’s lying on that point.
I’m more interested in what he said before that, because he appears to have leaked a classified detail about the ongoing USA Freedom dragnet: that they’ve been issuing orders to a “large and significant number of companies” under the new dragnet.
There are large and significant number of companies that either said, we are not going to collect records at all, we’re not going to have any records if you come asking for them, or we’re only going to keep them on average of 18 months. When the intelligence community or law enforcement comes knocking and subpoenas those records, in many cases there won’t be any records because some of these companies already said they’re not going to hold these records. And the result is that we will not be able in many cases to put together the full puzzle, the full picture of some of these individuals.
Let me clear: I’m certain this fact, that the IC has been asking for records from “a large number of companies,” is classified. For a guy trying to run for President as an uber-hawk, leaking such details (especially in appearance where he calls cleared people who leak like Edward Snowden “traitors”) ought to be entirely disqualifying.
But that detail is not news to emptywheel readers. As I noted in my analysis of the Intelligence Authorization the House just passed, James Clapper would be required to do a report 30 days after the authorization passes telling Congress which “telecoms” aren’t holding your call records for 18 months.
Section 307: Requires DNI to report if telecoms aren’t hoarding your call records
This adds language doing what some versions of USA Freedom tried to requiring DNI to report on which “electronic communications service providers” aren’t hoarding your call records for at least 18 months. He will have to do a report after 30 days listing all that don’t (bizarrely, the bill doesn’t specify what size company this covers, which given the extent of ECSPs in this country could be daunting), and also report to Congress within 15 days if any of them stop hoarding your records.
That there would be so many companies included Clapper would need a list surprised me, a bit. When I analyzed the House Report on the bill, I predicted USAF would pull in anything that might be described as a “call.”
We have every reason to believe the CDR function covers all “calls,” whether telephony or Internet, unlike the existing dragnet. Thus, for better and worse, far more people will be exposed to chaining than under the existing dragnet. It will catch more potential terrorists, but also more innocent people. As a result, far more people will be sucked into the NSA’s maw, indefinitely, for exploitation under all its analytical functions. This raises the chances that an innocent person will get targeted as a false positive.
At the same time, I thought that the report’s usage of “phone company” might limit collection to the providers that had been included — AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint — plus whatever providers cell companies aren’t already using their backbone, as well as the big tech companies that by dint of being handset manufacturers, that is, “phone” companies, could be obligated to turn over messaging records — things like iMessage and Skype metadata.
Nope. According to uber-hawk who believes leakers are traitors Marco Rubio, a “large number” of companies are getting requests.
From that I assume that the IC is sending requests to the entire universe of providers laid out by Verizon Associate General Counsel Michael Woods in his testimony to SSCI in 2014:
Woods describes Skype (as the application that carried 34% of international minutes in 2012), as well as applications like iMessage and smaller outlets of particular interest like Signal as well as conferencing apps.
So it appears the intelligence committees, because they’re morons who don’t understand technology (and ignored Woods) got themselves in a pickle, because they didn’t realize that if you want full coverage from all “phone” communication, you’re going to have to go well beyond even AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, Apple, Microsoft, and Google (all of which have compliance departments and the infrastructure to keep such records). They are going to try to obtain all the call records, from every little provider, whether or not they actually have the means with which to keep and comply with such requests. Some — Signal might be among them — simply aren’t going to keep records, which is what Rubio is complaining about.
That’s a daunting task — and I can see why Rubio, if he believes that’s what needs to happen, is flustered by it. But, of course, it has nothing to do with the end of the old gap-filled dragnet. Indeed, that daunting problem arises because the new program aspires to be more comprehensive.
In any case, I’m grateful Rubio has done us the favor of laying out precisely what gaps the IC is currently trying to fill, but hawks like Rubio will likely call him a traitor for doing so.
President Obama, as you’ve likely heard, just announced an extension of the Afghan mission. He insists combat operations in Afghanistan are over. He insists the role of the “train, advise, assist” advisors on the ground won’t change. Our troops just need to stick around in Afghanistan until the training begins to take hold.
I’m most interested in the timing of this announcement. It comes 12 days after Americans — working at the behest of the Afghans we’re “train, advise, assisting” — destroyed a Médecins Sans Frontières hospital in Kunduz. Afghan commander General John Campbell, on a pre-planned trip to testify about how we need to extend our deployment, also answered questions about the attack and promised an investigation; he even suggested a preliminary investigation should be done within a month (so within the next 20 days).
Lucky for Obama, American reporters have short memories, otherwise some might ask him about the combat role these TAA advisors played two weeks ago today, returning fire against Taliban forces, just before the US destroyed a hospital. Because then we might be focusing on how Kunduz underscored that Americans will still be drawn into fighting.
But it’s the MSF bombing that would really undercut Obama’s decision to have us stay. Probably, the DOD investigation is going to show that the Afghans made unjustified claims about the Taliban operating from the hospital, most charitably because of confusion, but possibly because they didn’t like that the hospital treated Taliban members (and likely was treating some from fighting earlier in the week). It will also show Special Operations process on vetting totally violated protocol, which will raise more questions about precisely what role SOF is playing on the ground (and how our counterterrorism operations, such as this was, threaten to drag us back in).
So Obama rolled out his decision in that sweet spot, where most of the big reporting on the MSF attack has passed, but before the report will renew attention on precisely what we’re doing in Afghanistan.
One other point about Obama’s decision. In his announcement today — and in Campbell’s testimony last week — both men raved about what a great partner Ashraf Ghani is (both also made overly optimistic claims about how well power sharing is working). That should make it clear — if this analysis wasn’t already enough — that the shut-down of NSA’s full take on Afghanistan cell phone content that happened after WaPo and Intercept described the MYSTIC/SOMALGET programs has since been reversed. It’s clear Ghani has agreed to do what we have asked in order to get us to stay, and we surely asked for turn the full take back on, for troop protection if not to better spy on the Taliban. Which, of course, would indicate Clapper was lying again.
Finally, MSF has not backed off its demand for an independent investigation. It just launched a Change.org petition calling on President Obama to consent to an independent investigation.
In a piece claiming “the most pressing problem the United States sees in its cyber relations with China [is] the widespread espionage and theft by China in U.S. public and private digital networks,” Jack Goldsmith argues any cyber agreement with China won’t be all that useful because we would never be able to verify it.
I still adhere what I once wrote in response to this: “in the absence of decent verification, we cannot be confident that transparency measures are in fact transparent, or that revealed doctrine is actual doctrine. Nor can norms get much purchase in a world without serious attribution and verification; anonymity is a norm destroyer.”
Goldsmith says this in a piece that claims to adopt Sanger’s expressed concerns about the proposed deal and what it won’t cover. Here’s Sanger:
But it seems unlikely that any deal coming out of the talks would directly address the most urgent problems with cyberattacks of Chinese origin, according to officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe continuing negotiations.
Most of those attacks have focused on espionage and theft of intellectual property. The rules under discussion would have done nothing to stop the theft of 22 million personal security files from the Office of Personnel Management, which the director of national intelligence, James R. Clapper Jr., recently told Congress did not constitute an “attack” because it was intelligence collection — something the United States does, too.
The agreement being negotiated would also not appear to cover the use of tools to steal intellectual property, as the Chinese military does often to bolster state-owned industries, according to an indictment of five officers of the People’s Liberation Army last year. And it is not clear that the rules would prohibit the kind of attack carried out last year against Sony Pictures Entertainment, for which the United States blamed North Korea. That attack melted down about 70 percent of Sony’s computer systems.
So Sanger quotes James Clapper saying he doesn’t consider OPM an attack (for good reason), but says that’s one of the most urgent concerns about Chinese hacking. Clapper’s response doesn’t seem to substantiate Sanger’s claim about the centrality of that as a concern, though I think it is a huge concern. I’ll come back to this.
Then Sanger — in a piece that once again repeats the shitty reporting that last year’s indictment showed the theft of IP to bolster state-owned industries (see this post, but I’m working on a follow-up) — says the agreement won’t cover IP theft. Finally, Sanger says that the agreement might not cover a Sony pictures hack, which the Chinese haven’t been accused of doing, so why would that be important in an agreement with the Chinese?
That last bit is where Goldsmith actually doesn’t adopt what Sanger has laid out. Indeed, he seems to say the agreement is about Sony type hacks.
[T]he ostensible “agreement” won’t have anything to do with the most pressing problem the United States sees in its cyber relations with China – the widespread espionage and theft by China in U.S. public and private digital networks. The negotiation is mainly about cyberattacks (cyber operations that disrupt, destroy, degrade, or manipulate information on adversary networks) and not about cyberexpoitation (cyber operations involving theft, intelligence-gathering, and the like on digital networks).
The Sony hack certainly disrupted and destroyed the film studio’s networks, even while exposing a bunch of embarrassing intelligence. But thus far, we’re proceeding as if China hasn’t done that to “us” (to the extent a Japanese owned film studio counts as the US), North Korea has. We don’t even ever talk about whether China, in addition to robbing the F-35 program blind, also sabotaged it; I remain agnostic about whether the US defense industry needed China’s help to sabotage the program, but China definitely had the persistence in networks to sabotage key parts that have since proven faulty. Plus, we’re taking it on faith that claims that the NYSE/United outages that happened on the same day are really unrelated, and curiously we’re not talking about the serial air travel outages we’ve experienced of late (after United, the FAA and then American went down because of “software problems”). I would suggest that the IC may have reason to have urgent concern about China’s ability and willingness to sabotage us, above and beyond its IP theft and intelligence theft, but if it does it’s not telling us.
But let’s take a step back. Since when did we conflate IP theft and the OPM hack? Those are different problems, and I’d really love to have a discussion — which surely wouldn’t happen with any government officials in any unclassified forum — whether the OPM hack is now considered a more urgent threat than serial Chinese IP theft, or whether Clapper is being honest in consistently dismissing it as similar behavior to what we do. Sure, IP theft used to be the most urgent issue, but did that change when China absconded with a database of much of our clearance data? The relative urgency of the two seems an utterly critical thing to understand, given that China pwned us in the OPM hack, and now 3 months after discovering that, we’re signing a cyber agreement.
All the more so given that the OPM hack goes right to the issue of anonymity though not, perhaps, verifiability.
In his piece, Goldsmith is a bit more trusting of the Clapper claim — which I laid out here — that we lost technical accesses in the wake of the Snowden leaks. I think that may well be the case, but it’s just as likely that’s disinformation, either for Congress in advance of the Xi Jinping visit, or for the Chinese. Goldsmith presents that as one more reason why we can’t verify any agreement, and therefore it will be largely worthless.
But does it matter that the OPM hack created symmetry in transparency of personnel (which is different from technical accesses) between China and the US? Does it matter that, with the OPM hack, the Chinese largely replicated our ability to create fingerprints using XKS, and through that figure out who in China was doing what?
That is, we may not have full attribution ability right now — in Clapper’s description it sounded like we could consistently ID tools and persona, but not necessarily tie that persona back to the Chinese state, though, again, that my have been disinformation. But both the US (through XKS) and China (through OPM) have achieved a kind of transparency in personnel.
Which brings me to my central question, in response to Goldsmith’s claim this agreement is pretty meaningless because of the attribution and verification problems. He may well be right it will be a mostly symbolic agreement (though if we move towards norms that may be a positive step).
But until we tease out the real interaction of the old problem — the IP theft — with the new one — that China has our intelligence community by the balls, and until we develop more certainty that some other acts of sabotage aren’t, in fact, cyberattacks, I’m not sure we’re really understanding the dynamics behind the agreement.
Just as importantly, it seems, we need to understand what a new kind of personnel transparency affects our expectations about verification or trust in cyberspace. I don’t know the answer to whether this kind of symmetry chances the considerations on verification or not, but it does seem a relevant question.
I noted earlier that the reporting on the US not imposing cybersanctions on China appears to have credulously served its purpose in creating a narrative that may have helped create the environment for some kind of deal with China.
NYT’s David Sanger did his own version of that story which deserves special focus because it is so full of nonsense — and nonsense that targets Iran, not China.
Sanger starts his tale by quoting something President Obama said at Fort Meade over the weekend out of context. In response to a question about the direction of cybersecurity in the next 5-10 years, Obama spoke generally about both state and non-state actors.
Q Good afternoon, Mr. President. You alluded to in your opening remarks the threat that cyber currently is. And there’s been a lot of talk within the DOD and cyber community of the possibility of a separate branch of the military dedicated to cyber. I was wondering where you see cyber in the next five to ten years.
THE PRESIDENT: Well, it’s a great question. We initiated Cyber Command, anticipating that this is going to be a new theater for potential conflict. And what we’ve seen by both state and non-state actors is the increasing sophistication of hacking, the ability to penetrate systems that we previously thought would be secure. And it is moving fast. So, offense is moving a lot faster than defense.
Part of this has to do with the way the Internet was originally designed. It was not designed with the expectation that there would end up being three or four or five billion people doing commercial transactions, et cetera. It was thought this was just going to be an academic network to share papers and formulas and whatnot. And so the architecture of the Internet makes it very difficult to defend consistently.
We continue to be the best in the world at understanding and working within cyber. But other countries have caught up. The Russians are good. The Chinese are good. The Iranians are good. And you’ve got non-state hackers who are excellent. And unlike traditional conflicts and aggression, oftentimes we don’t have a return address. If somebody hacks into a system and goes after critical infrastructure, for example, or penetrates our financial systems, we can’t necessarily trace it directly to that state or that actor. That makes it more difficult as well. [my emphasis]
Sanger excised all reference to “excellent” non-state hackers, and instead made this a comment about hacking by state actors.
“Offense is moving a lot faster than defense,” Mr. Obama told troops on Friday at Fort Meade, Md., home of the National Security Agency and the United States Cyber Command. “The Russians are good. The Chinese are good. The Iranians are good.” The problem, he said, was that despite improvements in tracking down the sources of attacks, “we can’t necessarily trace it directly to that state,” making it hard to strike back.
Sanger then took this comment very specifically directed at the upcoming Xi visit and China,
And this is something that we’re just at the infancy of. Ultimately, one of the solutions we’re going to have to come up with is to craft agreements among at least state actors about what’s acceptable and what’s not. And so, for example, I’m going to be getting a visit from President Xi of China, a state visit here coming up in a couple of weeks. We’ve made very clear to the Chinese that there are certain practices that they’re engaging in that we know are emanating from China and are not acceptable. And we can choose to make this an area of competition — which I guarantee you we’ll win if we have to — or, alternatively, we can come to an agreement in which we say, this isn’t helping anybody; let’s instead try to have some basic rules of the road in terms of how we operate.
And suggested it was directed at other states more generally.
Then he issued a warning: “There comes a point at which we consider this a core national security threat.” If China and other nations cannot figure out the boundaries of what is acceptable, “we can choose to make this an area of competition, which I guarantee you we’ll win if we have to.”
Sanger then spends six paragraphs talking about how hard a time Obama is having “deterring” cyberattacks even while reporting that China and the US have forged some kind of deal that would establish norms that are different than deterrence but might diminish attacks. He also, rather curiously, talks (again) about “unprecedented” theft of personal information in the OPM hack that we need to deter — even though James Clapper has repeatedly said publicly that we do the same thing (and by some measures, on a much bigger scale).
The revelation in last week’s cyber threats hearing the press has been most agog about is that James Clapper predicted hackers would get around to changing, rather than just stealing, data.
[after 19:00] In the future I believe we’ll see more cyber operations that will change or manipulate electronic information to compromise its integrity — in other words, compromise its accuracy and its reliability, instead of merely deleting it or disrupting access to it.
[after 56:00] To this point, it’s either been disruption — of a website, for example, but more commonly, just purloining information. As I indicated in my opening statement though, I believe the next push on the envelope here is going to be the manipulation or deletion of data, which will of course compromise its integrity.
Um. Really, journalists who cover this area?
The notion that a cyber operator will change data is not new. Proof of that concept happened years ago, with the StuxNet attack, when US and Israeli hackers made the Iranians think everything was going peachy with their centrifuges when in fact they were spinning out of control. No one may yet have manipulated our data, but we’ve manipulated others’ data.
Which I guess means, according to Clapper’s definition, StuxNet was an attack and not just a hack — in case you had any doubts.
One thing I found far more interesting was Clapper’s repeated assertion that the IC has seen no use of the Office of Personnel Management data.
[after 49:00; see also after 1:29] Clapper: What we’ve done is speculate how it could be used. And again the distinction I was just making with Congressman Westmoreland had to do with the terminology of saying that the OPM breach was an attack. Getting back to definitional issues, we wouldn’t characterize it that way. What’s of great concern with respect to the OPM breach, which I spoke to briefly in my opening statement had to do with potential uses of that data. And of course, we’re looking. Thus far we haven’t seen any evidence of their usage of that data.
I said as I was watching and others have said since that this likely just reflects China — almost universally believed to be the OPM perpetrator — playing the long game. It will use the knowledge when it’s good and ready, all the while we’ll know it has it.
All that said, the other thing Clapper said that I found very interesting was that the IC has varying degrees of confidence about who did this hack.
[after 20:00] Clapper: And while speaking of the OPM breaches, let me say a couple of words about attribution, which is not a simple process and involves at least three related but distinct determinations: geographic point of origin, the identity of the actual perpetrator doing the keystrokes, and the responsibility for actually directing the attack. In the case of OPM, we’ve had differing degrees of confidence across the IC in our assessment of the responsibility for each of these elements. Of late, unauthorized disclosures and foreign defensive improvements have cost us some technical accesses.
Apparently, not everyone in the IC is completely convinced China did this. This is the kind of statement we never saw, as far as I remember, with regards to the Sony hack (though, admittedly, it’s a lot easier to make unsubstantiated accusations against North Korea than China). Are people really not convinced?
Note, too, the casual reference to the US losing some technical accesses, presumably in response to Snowden’s disclosures and the heightened awareness from our adversaries just how badly we’ve pawned them for years. Given the assumption China hacked OPM, this likely means we’ve lost some visibility into Chinese actions in the last two years.
The evidence China did this hack in part stems from its complexity; few — but not no — other actors could pull it off. That someone would hack United, in tandem with OPM, would support that, given that United flies so many flights from Dulles to China.
All that said is it possible — remotely — some other sophisticated state actor could have done this?
I’m going to assume Clapper is just downplaying the certainty here, possibly in advance of Xi Jinping’s visit to DC.
But if it is remotely true, would that have an effect on our ability to monitor for the use — or even manipulation — of OPM data? That is, if we were looking for Chinese use of the data — focusing on people of Chinese descent and/or people stationed there — would we miss attempts to compromise clearance holders another sophisticated state actor — say, Israel — might target? I’ll just remind that at a time when the US was trying to set up the IRGC for an assassination attempt, someone spamouflaged what likely included our target. I presume that as we got closer and then finalized the Iran deal, Israel’s targeting of our spooks has intensified.
In any case, Clapper seems confident that the data was not compromised here, which is something other commentators have raised as a worry (because doing so would allow you to create clearances for people who had not been vetted, for example).
[after 1:29]My working definition of whether it’s an attack or not and my characterization of it not being an attack in that there was no destruction of data or manipulation of data, it was simply stolen.
But if we’re not 100% sure this is China (again, I’m skeptical we have much doubt), maybe we couldn’t be so sure about whether the data has been manipulated or — at the very least — used to compromise our clearance holders.
Yesterday, during the Q&A to his speech at INSA (which is where defense and intelligence contractors huddle with government paymasters), James Clapper conceded that Edward Snowden brought needed transparency but had also damaged operations. Rather than obliquely pointing to the exposure that Skype was no longer safe from surveillance, as he and his ilk normally do, Clapper pointed to what he claimed was a concrete example: what journalists have reported as revelations about full take cell phone content (SOMALGET or MYSTIC) leading to loss of access in Afghanistan.
After Clapper made the claim, a lot of reporters did what reporters do: they transcribed his comments uncritically. Lots of journalists did this, but here’s WaPo’s version from Ellen Nakashima:
One of the disclosures based on documents leaked by Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor, prompted the shutdown of a key intelligence program in Afghanistan, the nation’s top spy said Wednesday.
“It was the single most important source of force protection and warning for our people in Afghanistan,” Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. said at an intelligence conference.
He was addressing a question about the impact of revelations by Snowden, whose leaks led to a global debate about the proper scope of U.S. surveillance at home and abroad.
Nakashima and other reporters assumed Clapper meant the MYSTIC/SOMALGET program, which Nakashima noted the WaPo first described (on March 18, 2014), followed by The Intercept two months later (on May 19, 2014), followed by WikiLeaks revealing Afghanistan as the target country several days later (on May 23, 2014). [Update: Note Cryptome correctly determined Afghanistan was the country on May 19, the day the Intercept published.]
Having laid all that out, however, Nakashima doesn’t quote the part of Clapper’s answer that would either discredit his description or reveal it’s something else. Here’s Ars Technica’s transcription of that part of it.
And programs that had a real impact on the security of American forces overseas, including one program in Afghanistan, “which he exposed and Glenn Greenwald wrote about, and the day after he wrote about it, the program was shut down by the government of Afghanistan,” Clapper noted.
If it’s the MYSTIC/SOMALGET program Clapper was really talking about, then his claim is self-refuting. Because either folks in Afghanistan recognized the program themselves back when WaPo wrote about it in March 2014, or probably didn’t until WikiLeaks confirmed they were the target. It wouldn’t have been Greenwald’s story, in which he withheld the information the government requested in any case.
For the moment, I’m going to assume that was the program, but let’s remember it might not be.
If so, consider what Clapper has done. As I mentioned, normally when people want to beat up Snowden, they point to his disclosure NSA had compromised Skype. But they never confirm that — they just mention it obliquely. Here, Clapper has confirmed the thing (actually just one of the things) that NSA had asked Greenwald to withhold. Given how vague WikiLeaks was about how they knew (after all, they’re not known to have the Snowden documents themselves), if this is MYSTIC/SOMALGET it seems that Clapper has definitively confirmed something that was at least of unknown provenance before.
Although, for reasons of source protection we cannot disclose how, WikiLeaks has confirmed that the identity of victim state is Afghanistan.
In other words, Clapper has confirmed something that hadn’t been confirmed before, precisely because the journalists involved had deferred to the government’s request not to publish it.
Or did he?
Clapper claimed “the program was shut down by the government of Afghanistan.”
Admittedly, the MYSTIC/SOMALGET disclosures came at an awkward time for US-Afghan relations. Hamid Karzai had been pushing back against night raids, prisoner transfers, and CIA militias. In part because the US wouldn’t cede Afghan sovereignty on such issues, Karzai was refusing to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement (raising the same kind of SOFA negotiation problems that forced us to withdraw troops from Iraq). Throughout this two month period, the election and run-off were going on.
So the disclosure that the US had compromised Afghanistan’s entire cell phone system — and implicitly, had copies of every cell call that Karzai and his potential replacements might make — would surely anger the Afghans, especially Karzai. Notably, two days after the WikiLeaks disclosure, Karzai refused to meet when President Obama made a surprise visit to the country on May 25, so (as shown by the White House image above) Obama called him from Air Force One instead.
But if that’s the case — if Afghanistan forced the US to shut down the full-take collection of cell phone content even as Obama was making surprise last minute visits (which may even have been an attempt to convince Karzai to reverse that decision) — then the fault lies not just, or even primarily, with Snowden. It lies with a long history of US refusal to cede to Afghanistan’s demands for some kind of functional sovereignty. This telecom disclosure may have been one more in a series of aggravations, but it was by no means the only one. Moreover, given that President Ghani’s relationship with the US is, thus far at least, far better than Karzai’s was at the time, it’s quite possible he has permitted the US to resume full-take collection.
James Clapper would be a lot more likely to confirm that Afghanistan had shut down NSA’s full-take collection if it had been resumed again under Karzai’s successor. Not least, because it would provide adversaries with false confidence the NSA didn’t have full take coverage.
Now consider this description of the Bahamian fallout from the equivalent disclosure. It shows that two parties were involved — the country’s telecom as well as the government. Indeed, all stories on this make it clear telecom providers are centrally involved in the collection program.
Moreover, the Intercept version of the story makes it quite clear they withheld not just the target country, but also the provider at the center of it.
The NSA documents don’t specify who is providing access in the Bahamas. But they do describe SOMALGET as an “umbrella term” for systems provided by a private firm, which is described elsewhere in the documents as a “MYSTIC access provider.” (The documents don’t name the firm, but rather refer to a cover name that The Intercept has agreed not to publish in response to a specific, credible concern that doing so could lead to violence.) Communications experts consulted by The Intercept say the descriptions in the documents suggest a company able to install lawful intercept equipment on phone networks.
And they withheld it for the same reason, because revealing it would lead to violence. That provider name has not been made public (though for a variety of reasons I think that’s the key secret here). Shutting down the system would have to involve, at a minimum, the Afghan government, this provider, plus Afghanistan’s multiple cell providers.
There are more reasons to believe Clapper’s story is bullshit. From the 2005 STELLAR WIND disclosures, which revealed the US was collecting all US-Afghanistan calls, to reports as early as 2008 that the Taliban were targeting cell providers because they recognized the security risk the networks posed, there is zero chance our adversaries in Afghanistan were unaware that the US had close to full dominance over the communications lines. There were also earlier Snowden disclosures — including Tempora, XKeyscore, and what sounded like transcripts obtained using a Stingray from a Afghan raid — that would have confirmed that view. The US is collecting close to everything from most countries where it remains at war, via a variety of overlapping means. There’s little about this disclosure in particular that added to the risk — but then, our adversaries had long been learning of our tactics and adjusting accordingly.
There is, then, the possibility it was one of these other disclosures Clapper was whining about — such as the potential Stingray one.
But if Clapper was talking about SOMALGET, and if it is true that the full-take collection got shut down, it means he and the government are blaming Snowden for long-term mismanagement of the Afghan relationship. It also may well mean that Ghani has let the US resume collection and Clapper’s public “confirmation” was designed — in addition to launching some unwarranted shots at Edward Snowden — to create the false impression the collection remains inactive.
James Clapper is a confirmed liar. Even setting aside his lies to Congress, it is his job to lie to adversaries. While that doesn’t mean journalists shouldn’t report what he says, there’s a great deal of context that should accompany such transcriptions.
Steve Aftergood has posted a new directive from James Clapper mandating that Intelligence Community members warn individuals (be they corporate or natural persons) of a threat of death of seriously bodily harm.
This Directive establishes in policy a consistent, coordinated approach for how the Intelligence Community (IC) will provide warning regarding threats to specific individuals or groups of intentional killing, serious bodily injury, and kidnapping.
The fine print on it is quite interesting. For example, if you’re a drug dealer, someone involved in violent crime, or you’re at risk solely because you’re involved in an insurgency, the IC is not obliged to give you notice. Remember, the FBI did not alert members of Occupy Wall Street someone was plotting to assassinate them. Did they (then) not do so because they considered Occupy an “insurgency”? Would they consider them as one going forward?
But I’m most interested in what this should mean for hacking.
Here’s how the directive defines “seriously bodily harm.”
Serious Bodily Injury means an injury which creates a substantial risk of death or which causes serious, permanent disfigurement or impairment.
As I have noted, NSA has secretly defined “serious bodily harm” to include threat to property — that is, threats to property constitute threats of bodily harm.
If so, a serious hack would represent a threat of bodily harm (and under NSA’s minimization procedures they could share this data). While much of the rest of the Directive talks about how to accomplish this bureaucratically (and the sources and methods excuses for not giving notice), this should suggest that if a company like Sony is at risk of a major hack, NSA would have to tell it (and the Directive states that the obligation applies for US persons and non-US persons, though Sony is in this context a US person).
So shouldn’t this amount to a mandate for cybersharing, all without the legal immunity offered corporations under CISA?
I Con the Record just announced that the NSA will make the phone dragnet data it has “analytically unavailable” after the new system goes live in November, and unavailable even to techs three months later.
On June 29, 2015, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court approved the Government’s application to resume the Section 215 bulk telephony metadata program pursuant to the USA FREEDOM Act’s 180-day transition provision. As part of our effort to transition to the new authority, we have evaluated whether NSA should maintain access to the historical metadata after the conclusion of that 180-day period.
NSA has determined that analytic access to that historical metadata collected under Section 215 (any data collected before November 29, 2015) will cease on November 29, 2015. However, solely for data integrity purposes to verify the records produced under the new targeted production authorized by the USA FREEDOM Act, NSA will allow technical personnel to continue to have access to the historical metadata for an additional three months.
Separately, NSA remains under a continuing legal obligation to preserve its bulk 215 telephony metadata collection until civil litigation regarding the program is resolved, or the relevant courts relieve NSA of such obligations. The telephony metadata preserved solely because of preservation obligations in pending civil litigation will not be used or accessed for any other purpose, and, as soon as possible, NSA will destroy the Section 215 bulk telephony metadata upon expiration of its litigation preservation obligations.
As I understand it, whatever data has been found to be two or three degrees of separation from a baddie will remain in NSA’s maw, but the data that has never returned off a search will not.
I’m pleasantly surprised by this, as I suspect it reflects a decision to accept the Second Circuit verdict in ACLU v. Clapper and to move to shut down other lawsuits.
As I noted, two weeks ago, the ACLU moved for an injunction against the dragnet, which not only might have led to the Second Circuit ordering the government to purge ACLU’s data right away (and possibly, to stop collecting all data), but also basically teed up the Second Circuit to remind the FISC it is not an appellate court. I worried that would lead the FISC to ask FISCR to review its dragnet decisions under a provision newly provided under the USA F-ReDux.
Shortly after ACLU filed its request for an injunction, the government asked for an extension to … today, which the court granted.
So I assume we’ll shortly see that filing arguing that, since the government has voluntarily set a purge date for all the dragnet data, ACLU should not get its injunction.
That doesn’t necessarily rule out a FISCR fast track request, but I think it makes it less likely.
The other player here, however, is the EFF.
I believe both ACLU and EFF’s phone dragnet client Council on American Islamic Relations, had not only standing as clients of dragnetted companies, but probably got swept up in the two-degree dragnet. But CAIR probably has an even stronger case, because it is public that FISC approved a traditional FISA order against CAIR founder Nihad Awad. Any traditional FISA target has always been approved as a RAS seed to check the dragnet, and NSA almost certainly used that more back when Awad was tapped, which continued until 2008. In other words, CAIR has very good reason to suspect the entire organization has been swept up in the dragnet and subjected to all of NSA’s other analytical toys.
EFF, remember, is the one NGO that has a preservation order, which got extended from its earlier NSA lawsuits (like Jewel) to the current dragnet suit. So when I Con the Record says it can’t destroy all the data yet, it’s talking EFF, and by extension, CAIR. So this announcement — in addition to preparing whatever they’ll file to get the Second Circuit off its back — is likely an effort to moot that lawsuit, which in my opinion poses by far the biggest threat of real fireworks about the dragnet (not least because it would easily be shown to violate a prior SCOTUS decision prohibiting the mapping of organizations).
We’ll see soon enough. For the moment, though, I’m a bit surprised by the cautious approach this seems to represent.
Update: Timeline on data availability fixed.
Update: Here’s the government’s brief submitted today. I’m rather intrigued by how often the brief claims USA F-ReDux was about bulk “telephony” data when it was supposed to be about all bulk collection. But I guess I can return to that point.
Update: They depart from describing USA F-ReDux as a ban bulk collection of telephony when they describe it as a ban on collection of bulk collection under Section 215, also not what the bill says.
Part of the compromise on which Congress settled, which the President supported, was to add an unequivocal ban on bulk collection under Section 215 specifying that “[n]o order issued under” Section 215(b)(2) “may authorize collection of tangible things without the use of a specific selection term that meets the requirements” of that subsection.
Update: This is key language — and slightly different from what they argued before FISC. I will return to it.
Plaintiffs assert that, by not changing the language of Section 215 authorizing the collection of business records during the transition period, Congress implicitly incorporated into the USA FREEDOM Act this Court’s opinion holding that Section 215 did not authorize bulk collection. See Pls.’ Mot. 7- 8. Plaintiffs rely on language providing that the legislation does not “alter or eliminate the authority of the Government to obtain an order under” Section 215 “as in effect prior to the effective date” of the statute. USA FREEDOM Act § 109, 129 Stat. at 276. That language does not advance plaintiffs’ argument, however, because the statute says nothing expressly about what preexisting authority the government had under Section 215 to obtain telephony metadata in bulk. It is implausible that Congress employed the word “authority” to signify that the government lacked authority to conduct the Section 215 bulk telephony-metadata program during the 180-day transition period, contrary to the FISC’s repeated orders and the Executive Branch’s longstanding and continuing interpretation and application of the law, and notwithstanding the active litigation of that question in this Court. That is especially so because language in the USA FREEDOM Act providing for the 180-day transition period has long been a proposed feature of the legislation. It is thus much more plausible that the “authority” Congress was referring to was not the understanding of Section 215 reflected in this Court’s recent interpretation of Section 215, but rather the consistent interpretation of Section 215 by 19 different FISC judges: to permit bulk collection of telephony metadata.