Who's in Big Brother's Database?

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The
Secret Sentry: The Untold History of the National Security Agency

by Matthew M. Aid
Bloomsbury,
423 pp.

On a remote
edge of Utah’s dry and arid high desert, where temperatures often
zoom past 100 degrees, hard-hatted construction workers with top-secret
clearances are preparing to build what may become America’s equivalent
of Jorge Luis Borges’s "Library of Babel," a place where
the collection of information is both infinite and at the same time
monstrous, where the entire world’s knowledge is stored, but not
a single word is understood. At a million square feet, the mammoth
$2 billion structure will be one-third larger than the US Capitol
and will use the same amount of energy as every house in Salt Lake
City combined.

Unlike Borges’s
"labyrinth of letters," this library expects few visitors.
It’s being built by the ultra-secret National Security Agency – which
is primarily responsible for "signals intelligence," the
collection and analysis of various forms of communication – to
house trillions of phone calls, e-mail messages, and data trails:
Web searches, parking receipts, bookstore visits, and other digital
"pocket litter." Lacking adequate space and power at its
city-sized Fort Meade, Maryland, headquarters, the NSA is also completing
work on another data archive, this one in San Antonio, Texas, which
will be nearly the size of the Alamodome.

Just how much
information will be stored in these windowless cybertemples? A clue
comes from a recent report prepared by the MITRE Corporation, a
Pentagon think tank. "As the sensors associated with the various
surveillance missions improve," says the report, referring
to a variety of technical collection methods, "the data volumes
are increasing with a projection that sensor data volume could potentially
increase to the level of Yottabytes (10^24 Bytes) by 2015."
Roughly equal to about a septillion (1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000)
pages of text, numbers beyond Yottabytes haven’t yet been named.
Once vacuumed up and stored in these near-infinite "libraries,"
the data are then analyzed by powerful infoweapons, supercomputers
running complex algorithmic programs, to determine who among us
may be – or may one day become – a terrorist. In the NSA’s
world of automated surveillance on steroids, every bit has a history
and every keystroke tells a story.

In the near
decade since September 11, the tectonic plates beneath the American
intelligence community have undergone a seismic shift, knocking
the director of the CIA from the top of the organizational chart
and replacing him with the new director of national intelligence,
a desk-bound espiocrat with a large staff but little else. Not only
surviving the earthquake but emerging as the most powerful chief
the spy world has ever known was the director of the NSA. He is
in charge of an organization three times the size of the CIA and
empowered in 2008 by Congress to spy on Americans to an unprecedented
degree, despite public criticism of the Bush administration’s use
of the agency to conduct warrantless domestic surveillance as part
of the "war on terror." The legislation also largely freed
him of the nettlesome Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA).
And in another significant move, he was recently named to head the
new Cyber Command, which also places him in charge of the nation’s
growing force of cyber warriors.

Wasting no
time, the agency has launched a building boom, doubling the size
of its headquarters, expanding its listening posts, and constructing
enormous data factories. One clue to the possible purpose of the
highly secret megacenters comes from the agency’s British partner,
Government Communications Headquarters. Last year, the British government
proposed the creation of an enormous government-run central database
to store details on every phone call, e-mail, and Internet search
made in the United Kingdom. Click a "send" key or push
an "answer" button and the details of the communication
end up, perhaps forever, in the government’s data warehouse to be
scrutinized and analyzed.

But when the
plans were released by the UK government, there was an immediate
outcry from both the press and the public, leading to the scrapping
of the "big brother database," as it was called. In its
place, however, the government came up with a new plan. Instead
of one vast, centralized database, the telecom companies and Internet
service providers would be required to maintain records of all details
about people’s phone, e-mail, and Web-browsing habits for a year
and to permit the government access to them when asked. That has
led again to public anger and to a protest by the London Internet
Exchange, which represents more than 330 telecommunications firms.
"We view…the volume of data the government now proposes [we]
should collect and retain will be unprecedented, as is the overall
level of intrusion into the privacy of citizenry," the group
said in August.

Unlike the
British government, which, to its great credit, allowed public debate
on the idea of a central data bank, the NSA obtained the full cooperation
of much of the American telecom industry in utmost secrecy after
September 11. For example, the agency built secret rooms in AT&T’s
major switching facilities where duplicate copies of all data are
diverted, screened for key names and words by computers, and then
transmitted on to the agency for analysis. Thus, these new centers
in Utah, Texas, and possibly elsewhere will likely become the centralized
repositories for the data intercepted by the NSA in America’s version
of the "big brother database" rejected by the British.

Matthew M.
Aid has been after the NSA’s secrets for a very long time. As a
sergeant and Russian linguist in the NSA’s Air Force branch, he
was arrested and convicted in a court-martial, thrown into prison,
and slapped with a bad conduct discharge for impersonating an officer
and making off with a stash of NSA documents stamped Top Secret
Codeword. He now prefers to obtain the NSA’s secrets legally, through
the front door of the National Archives. The result is The
Secret Sentry: The Untold History of the National Security Agency
,
a footnote-heavy history told largely through declassified but heavily
redacted NSA reports that have been slowly trickling out of the
agency over the years. They are most informative in the World War
II period but quickly taper off in substance during the cold war.

Aid begins
his study on the eve of Pearl Harbor, a time when the entire American
cryptologic force could fit into a small, half-empty community theater.
But by war’s end, it would take a football stadium to seat the 37,000
military and civilian "crippies." On August 14, 1945,
as the ink dried on Japan’s instruments of surrender, the linguists
and codebreakers manning the thirty-seven key listening posts around
the world were reading more than three hundred diplomatic code and
cipher systems belonging to sixty countries. "The American
signals intelligence empire stood at the zenith of its power and
prestige," notes Aid. But within days, the cryptanalysts put
away their well-sharpened pencils and the intercept operators hung
up their earphones. By the end of December 1945, America’s crypto
world had shrunk to 7,500 men and women.

Despite the
drastic layoffs, the small cadre of US and British codebreakers
excelled against the new "main enemy," as Russia became
known. The joint US-British effort deciphered tens of thousands
of Russian army and navy messages during the mid-to-late 1940s.
But on October 29, 1948, as President Truman was about to deliver
a campaign speech in New York, the party was over. In what became
known within the crypto world as "Black Friday," the Russian
government and military flipped a switch and instantly converted
to new, virtually unbreakable encryption systems and from vulnerable
radio signals to buried cables. In the war between spies and machines,
the spies won. The Soviets had managed to recruit William Weisband,
a forty-year-old Russian linguist working for the US Army, who informed
them of key cryptologic weaknesses the Americans were successfully
exploiting. It was a blow from which the codebreakers would never
recover. NSA historians called it "perhaps the most significant
intelligence loss in US history."

In the 1970s,
when some modest gains were made in penetrating the Russian systems,
history would repeat itself and another American turncoat, this
time Ronald Pelton, would again give away the US secrets. Since
then, it has largely been a codemaker’s market not only with regard
to high-level Russian ciphers, but also those of other key countries,
such as China and North Korea. On the other hand, the NSA has made
significant progress against less cryptologically sophisticated
countries and, from them, gained insight into plans and intentions
of countries about which the US has greater concerns. Thus, when
a Chinese diplomat at the United Nations discusses some new African
venture with a colleague from Sudan, the eavesdroppers at the NSA
may be deaf to the Chinese communications links but they may be
able to get that same information by exploiting weaknesses in Sudan’s
communications and cipher systems when the diplomat reports the
meeting to Khartoum. But even third-world cryptography can be daunting.
During the entire war in Vietnam, writes Aid, the agency was never
able to break the high-level encryption systems of either the North
Vietnamese or the Vietcong. It is a revelation that leads him to
conclude "that everything we thought we knew about the role
of NSA in the Vietnam War needs to be reconsidered."

Because the
book is structured chronologically, it is somewhat difficult to
decipher the agency’s overall record. But one sees troubling trends.
One weakness that seems to recur is that the agency, set up in the
wake of World War II to prevent another surprise attack, is itself
frequently surprised by attacks and other serious threats. In the
1950s, as over 100,000 heavily armed North Korean troops surged
across the 38th parallel into South Korea, the codebreakers were
among the last to know. "The North Korean target was ignored,"
says a declassified NSA report quoted by Aid. "North Korea
got lost in the shuffle and nobody told us that they were interested
in what was going on north of the 38th parallel," exclaimed
one intelligence officer. At the time, astonishingly, the Armed
Forces Security Agency (AFSA), the NSA’s predecessor, didn’t even
have a Korean-language dictionary.

Unfortunately
for General Douglas MacArthur, the codebreakers were able to read
the communications of Spain’s ambassador to Tokyo and other diplomats,
who noted that in their discussions with the general, he made clear
his secret hope for all-out war with China and Russia, including
the use of nuclear weapons if necessary. In a rare instance of secret
NSA intercepts playing a major part in US politics, once the messages
were shown to President Truman, MacArthur’s career abruptly ended.

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the rest of the article

October
24, 2009

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