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The Spybots Among Us 

How the NSA tracks terrorists in the United States through the Internet

Wednesday, Dec 19 2001
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Page 4 of 5

The trick is to narrow the focus of interception as much as possible -- to selected regions of cyberspace, certain chat rooms, Web sites, groups, and individuals.

The NSA's biggest challenge appears to be buying or inventing programs capable of analyzing the billions of messages it captures every day. To that end, the NSA openly partners with and makes substantial investments in a wide range of technology companies, such as Northrop Grumman Corp. and Verizon Communications, that manufacture hardware and software capable of scouring the microwave spectrum and tapping into fiber-optic pipelines to look for targeted content.

According to the ECHELON report, an array of private companies, several owned and operated by ex- NSA officials, has contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars with the NSA. The report singles out Applied Signal Technology Inc., which is headquartered in Sunnyvale. John P. Devine, a member of Applied Signal's board of directors, was a deputy director of the NSA in 1995 when he left to join Applied Signal, which is described by the report as a "one-stop ECHELON shop."

Gary Yancey, founder and president of Applied Signal, says that his company has contracts with the NSA. "I know the ECHELON report well," he remarks. "But I can't comment on anything to do with it because of security clearances, and I would be excommunicated by the NSA if I did."

According to the ECHELON report, Applied Signal's devices intercept real-time data from high-speed Internet backbone links, then separate the raw intercept into tens of thousands of individual channels, each carrying a digitized telephone, fax, or modem "conversation." Although the rate of capture is quite impressive, it takes a relatively long time to interpret the captive data.

That is one reason the NSA apparently failed to analyze its raw intercepts on al Qaeda's U.S. branch prior to Sept. 11. Separating an unfathomable number of intercepted bits into intellectually analyzable categories is a laborious process. While the NSA divulges almost nothing about its techniques, it is possible to glimpse how it deals with intercepted data by looking at commercial products sold by firms that are close to the NSA.

Paracel, a subsidiary of Celera Corp. (famous for sequencing the human genome), describes its $100,000-plus TextFinder supercomputing processor as "designed to filter, search, categorize, and disseminate massive quantities of information for the Department of Defense." The chip can run hundreds of query searches on 50,000 pages of data per second (which is only a tiny fraction of the Internet's data flow), Paracel officials say. It can scan data in all languages simultaneously, while sorting it into patterns, according to Andrew Basile, TextFinder's project manager. Basile would neither confirm nor deny that the NSA uses TextFinder. The NSA does hold a patent on a software program, Semantic Forests, that has related capabilities and, according to Schneier and other experts, is designed for use on the Internet.

Eventually, intercepted data is threshed and winnowed down to the PC level, where it can be manipulated by human brains. For example, Applied Signal's Pager Identification and Message Extraction device, as viewed on the company's Web site, inputs intercepted data, such as telephone numbers, directly into an Excel spreadsheet. Shelves of commercially available analytical software, such as Xanalysis Inc.'s Watson and i2 Inc.'s Analyst's Notebook, help human beings connect people, places, things, money, weapons, and credit card charges into meaningful patterns. Hard information can be cross-referenced by NSA agents against behemoth databanks maintained by the government and corporations, such as Microsoft, ChoicePoint, DoubleClick, and other data-mining and financial-service companies that openly do business with the NSA and its sister agencies.


The Patriot Act's expansion of the NSA's spying authority is the latest political development in a decades-long struggle between NSA hard-liners and civil liberties advocates. The NSA was created shortly after World War II to advance encryption and decryption techniques, to defend the nation's telecommunications system from attack, and to covertly intercept messages and sort them into useful categories for intelligence purposes. For 30 years, its very existence was a state secret. In August 1975, liberal members of the Senate Intelligence Committee launched an investigation which revealed that, on a daily basis, the major telecommunications companies delivered to the NSA copies of all international telegrams and telexes sent to and from the United States by citizens and noncitizens alike. The NSA also used FBI and CIA watch lists to target the communications of more than 1,600 Americans, mostly critics of the Vietnam War. (Bamford reported in Body of Secrets that the NSA receives Internet watch lists from the CIA, State Department, and other bodies, containing topical keywords, names, phrases, and telephone and fax numbers.)

The Senate committee's revelation that the NSA was spying domestically, without court authorizations, resulted in the passing of new laws, most notably the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, which were intended to restrict the NSA and the federal government's 12 other intelligence agencies from spying on U.S. persons without a warrant. FISA requires the NSA to obtain a court order from a secret panel of federal judges when targeting U.S. persons in the United States for surveillance.

The NSA rarely applies to the FISA court, however. David L. Sobel, general counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, D.C., says, "It is NSA policy to err on the side of assuming that collected communications are not of U.S. persons." Sobel believes that this presumption should be reversed, since non-U.S. persons have little or no protection against unreasonable search and seizure of their e-mail.

Instead, the NSA operates according to partially declassified internal guidelines that allow its director to authorize domestic intelligence-gathering. Severely redacted copies of two of these internal guides have been obtained by the Federation of American Scientists and posted on its Web site. According to these documents, the NSA director is allowed to order the collection and dissemination of information about a U.S. person according to a whole catalog of reasons, including for law enforcement purposes; to protect classified secrets; to protect the country's electronic communications system; or in the case of significant importance to foreign intelligence-gathering. The NSA is allowed to share its information on U.S. persons with the FBI and other government agencies under a wide variety of circumstances and without court approval. It may build databases on U.S. persons that include personal information such as "criminal, educational, financial, and medical histories associated with a specific name or other personal identifier (such as Social Security Account Number, passport number, or bank account number)."

About The Author

Peter Byrne

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