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Some Observations Regarding NSA Surveillance

Posted 10-26-2013 at 01:43 PM by ttk
Updated 10-26-2013 at 01:44 PM by ttk (Adding categories)

Some things to keep in mind regarding the mass hoovering of data communications a la Room 641A:

Communication lines transport packets of data, each of which contains metadata (including identifiers for the origin of the packet and its destination) and data (voice, video, internet traffic, etc). Collection software would inspect each packet and append entries to its own data store, including at least the source, destination, and time the packet was inspected (and possibly additional metadata, and perhaps some or all of the data, depending on type).

Adding logic to this collection process to identify source or destination identifiers associated with domestic political leaders would be difficult at best. The actual identities of the communicants would not be known until this data store was later organized and correlated against a database mapping identifiers to identities (in part because of the overhead of performing an identity lookup for every packet, and in part because the identity behind an identifier might not be known at the time the packet is inspected -- the split database approach allows identity information to be added as it is discovered, independent of the schedule of packet inspections).

Therefore, it is almost certain that the NSA has been spying on every American political leader who uses a telephone, cellphone, or internet service.

Also, the closer one gets to the network trunk lines, the less distinction there is between fiber carrying voice, video, or data. The carrying capacity of modern long-haul optical is tremendous, so modern OTN systems allocate subsets of the available capacity into virtual circuits, each of which appears to be a traditional dedicated circuit so it can be split out and fed to legacy network hardware further downstream. These virtual circuits may be phone lines, video lines, internet lines, or mixed-type data lines themselves.

The implication of this is that when the NSA splits a backbone fiber for mass metadata collection a la Room 641A, they're not getting just one kind of data from one kind of media. They're potentially getting it all.

As a side note, it came up in Hepting vs AT&T that AT&T was prepping Room 641A for the NSA before the 9/11 attacks. The implication here is that the NSA was going to do all this regardless of any legislation allowing/disallowing it (like the PATRIOT Act).
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