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NSA’s Latest Claim: It Only Gets 30% of “Substantially All” the Hay in the Haystack

SIGINT and 215In December 2007, the FBI began intercepting MOALIN’s cell phone.

FBI search warrant affidavit seeking (among other things) additional cell phones, October 29, 2010

Yesterday, Siobhan Gorman reported that NSA’s “phone-data program” collects 20% or less of the phone data in the US. She explains that the program doesn’t collect cell phone data, and so has covered a decreasing percentage of US calls over the last several years.

The National Security Agency’s phone-data program, which has been at the center of controversy over the NSA’s surveillance operations, collects information from about 20% or less of all U.S. calls—much less than previously described by lawmakers.

The program had been described as collecting records on virtually every phone call placed in the U.S., but in fact, it doesn’t cover records for most cellphones, the fastest-growing sector in telephony and an area where the agency has struggled to keep pace, according to several people familiar with the program.

Ellen Nakashima’s report places the percentage between 20 and 30%, echoing Gorman’s claim about limits on cell data.

The actual percentage of records gathered is somewhere between 20 and 30 percent and reflects Americans’ increasing turn away from the use of land lines to cellphones. Officials also have faced technical challenges in preparing the NSA database to handle large amounts of new records without taking in data such as cell tower locations that are not authorized for collection.

[snip]

The bulk collection began largely as a land-line program, focusing on carriers such as AT&T and Verizon Business Network Services. At least two large wireless companies are not covered — Verizon Wireless and T-Mobile U.S., which was first reported by the Wall Street Journal.

Industry officials have speculated that partial foreign ownership has made the NSA reluctant to issue orders to those carriers. But U.S. officials said that was not a reason.

“They’re doing business in the United States; they’re required to comply with U.S. law,” said one senior U.S. official. “A court order is a court order.”

Rather, the official said, the drop in collection stems from several factors.

Apart from the decline in land-line use, the agency has struggled to prepare its database to handle vast amounts of cellphone data, current and former officials say. For instance, cellphone records may contain geolocation data, which the NSA is not permitted to receive.

These reports offer a more credible explanation than Geoffrey Stone’s multiple claims to this effect about why the program misses data. So they may be true.

But I think they instead point to the legal range of authorities NSA uses to collect phone records, not to what records they actually have in their possession.

These reports are commenting (though without specifying, or even seeming to be aware they need to specify) on what the government claims it collects under Section 215. These reports are not commenting on what NSA collects under all authorities.

In this post I will show why I believe these reports to be credible only in a very narrow sense. In a follow-up post I will point to the legal issues that underlie the Administration’s conflicting claims about what it collects.

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

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