Latest reported NSA capability is pretty awesome

As y’all know, I’ve had critical things to say about Edward Snowden. But I have to say, sometimes we learn about some pretty cool stuff as a result of his revelations.

For instance, if we really have this capability, that’s pretty awesome:

The National Security Agency has built a surveillance system capable of recording “100 percent” of a foreign country’s telephone calls, enabling the agency to rewind and review conversations as long as a month after they take place, according to people with direct knowledge of the effort and documents supplied by former contractor Edward Snowden.

A senior manager for the program compares it to a time machine — one that can replay the voices from any call without requiring that a person be identified in advance for surveillance.

The voice interception program, called MYSTIC, began in 2009. Its RETRO tool, short for “retrospective retrieval,” and related projects reached full capacity against the first target nation in 2011. Planning documents two years later anticipated similar operations elsewhere.

In the initial deployment, collection systems are recording “every single” conversation nationwide, storing billions of them in a 30-day rolling buffer that clears the oldest calls as new ones arrive, according to a classified summary.

The call buffer opens a door “into the past,” the summary says, enabling users to “retrieve audio of interest that was not tasked at the time of the original call.”…

If you told Keanu Reeves about this, you know what he would say

15 thoughts on “Latest reported NSA capability is pretty awesome

  1. Doug Ross

    Does that include calls from foreign countries to Americans? Does it include calls made by Americans while in foreign countries?

    Do you think this is the end of what they will do? Would it be better to stop them before they go too far or after?

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      The key there is “if they can do it.”

      And think about it — if they CAN do it, that means somebody was already recording and archiving every phone conversation; the NSA is just going back and looking at it.

      That such a collection of recordings exists is fairly staggering. It makes you wonder, Who was doing this, and Why? And what is being done with it when the NSA isn’t looking at it?

      Unless, of course, you believe the NSA has developed time travel. Which, as I say, would be awesome…

      1. Doug Ross

        What do you mean by “somebody was already recording the calls”? Who was doing that?

        My assumption is that the government hacked into some systems to do this – not that they piggybacked on some other work.

        1. Doug Ross

          I’m just wondering what it would take for you to NOT think all this additional surveillance was a good idea…

          What I find laughable is that the government thinks that whatever mechanism they come up with can’t be overcome by someone else. It’s a cat and mouse game where the mouse always wins.

        2. Brad Warthen Post author

          I mean that, barring the existence of time travel, the recordings had to exist. Someone had to be collecting them for the NSA to be able to peruse them. I was wondering who, and why…

        3. Doug Ross

          If I wanted to send a message, I’d post it as a Youtube video of a musician playing a song with just a few frames showing of a poster in the background where the message is written in code.

          Think of what would be required to try and find that.

          The best intelligence gathering is done by humans who can infiltrate cells. The technology approach likely has an extremely high signal to noise ratio.

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            I think you mean “high noise-to-signal ratio,” not the other way. I think.

            As it turns out, I have decoded a message like the one you describe (“a Youtube video of a musician playing a song with just a few frames showing of a poster in the background where the message is written in code”).

            And I have bad news for you all. Turns out Paul is dead. Yep. Huge, ongoing coverup…

  2. Dave Crockett

    Among the various places I routinely surf is a place called TidBITS. Most of the stuff there is hints and kinks for working with Apple hardware and software. But this item posted a few days ago gave me more pause over this NSA business than anything I’ve read in the popular press. I commend it to your reading: .

  3. Brad Warthen Post author

    I’m trying to think of any phone calls of mine that I’d want the NSA to go dig out so I could listen to them again.

    Mostly, I can think of calls I really, truly don’t want to be reminded of. It seems that the awkward or unpleasant calls have dug deeper grooves in my memory.

    Wait, I just thought of a good one I’d like to hear again…

    Sometime the spring of 1980, my wife wasn’t feeling too great, and decided to do something she seldom did — go see a doctor. Since she hadn’t been to a doctor in that town except when she had been expecting our two children (one was three; the other was about 19 months old), she went to see her obstetrician. He ran a blood test.

    After running the test, a nurse asked her what she was hoping for, a boy or a girl? She explained that she wasn’t there for that; she just had some kind of virus.

    The nurse was much amused, and said, “That’s right, honey; you’ve got one of those nine-month viruses.”

    Moments later, she called me at work. The conversation went something like this:

    HER: “Hello…”
    ME (immediately recognizing her voice): “Yeah. Hey…”


    HER: “This is Juanita…”


    ME (wondering what was with the pauses): “Yeah?”


    HER: “… the mother of your three children.”

    It took me a moment, but I was thrilled when I got what she meant. Wow.

    HER: “How old am I?”
    ME: “What?”
    HER: “They want to know how old I am, for a form. How old am I?”
    ME: “You’re 26.”
    HER: “Can you come get me?”

    I rushed to pick her up from the doctor’s office, and celebrate the news. She wasn’t so dazed by the time I got there.

    I’d like to hear that conversation again.

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