May 5, 2013

"Are all telephone calls recorded and accessible to the US government?"

"This week, CNN interviewed Tim Clemente, a former FBI counterterrorism agent, about whether the FBI would be able to discover the contents of past telephone calls between Tamerlan Tsarnaev and his wife. Clemente stated that the FBI had ways of accessing those calls, and that all calls are recorded."

Not just can the government start recording a particular suspect's calls. The old calls, from before they noticed this guy, are already recorded, and so are yours and mine. That's what Clemente says, anyway.

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50 comments:

rhhardin said...

The most information is who calls who, on which some mathematics can be applied; not what is said.

Achilles said...

Yes, they are. And have been doing it since well before Obama was president. Don't say or text or email anything you don't want out there. They don't actually go through your stuff until they "notice" you.

And it doesn't take that much storage. Look at how much google keeps cached. A mere billion worth of hard drives goes a long ways. And they also force the carrier companies to aid in the effort. Strange though, large corporations seem to be happy to help out.

Carol said...

They'd do it for reasons of security, protecting us, stopping crazy people and so forth. The populace will collaborate by reporting their neighbors and inlaws. For safety reasons of course.

edutcher said...

Missed mine:

Yes, they are that eager to have something on everybody should the necessity arise, but monitoring a Moslem crazy about whom the Saudis and the Russkies both warned us would be rrraaacciisssstttt, so they wouldn't do it.

PS They only care after you've become a "person of interest", especially if you're a bitter clinger, homophobic, Tea Partier gun nut.

YoungHegelian said...

They are probably recording calls for certain "flagged" individuals, probably based on the MAC addresses of their phones contacting other suspect MAC addresses. Was the late Mr. Tsarnaev on that list? Who knows.

But storing all the network traffic for all the cell phones in North America in real time? Man, that's A LOT of storage to chew through on a daily basis, and copying every packet as flies by in real time would introduce an annoying amount of latency into the cell phone connection.

Then again, maybe that's why cell phone service is so often awful.

Henry said...

Not only are they recorded, but they are taken down in type by Myrtle Devenish.

Who?

Myrtle Devenish. Jack Lint's typist.

CEO-MMP said...

Yes. They're doing it just because they can. More or less option 2.

Why else do they need the gigantic server farms and storage facilities the NSA has built?



St. George said...

Hasn't it been known for some time that the NSA has a giant computing facility in Utah hat hoovers (vacuums/J. Edgars) ALL global telecommunications?

Wiki says ithis place can store one yottabyte of data...That's one quadrillion gigabyes.

virgil xenophon said...

The trick is analyzing the stuff with the proper algorithms. And even then so many "flags" will pop up it's almost impossible to have enough manpower to further analyze the actual gist of the transmission--especially if it needs translating.

(FWIW there are literally miles of warehouses in Virginia full of stored classified overhead imagery [photo & infra-red] from the Vietnam War that were never and have never yet been analyzed--and never will be.)

Oso Negro said...

No surprise. Instead of "hello", perhaps our new salutation should be "fuck the totalitarian state". That would be a good all-purpose insult that would cover whichever party is in power at the moment.

bpm4532 said...

Yes, they have the ability to record and store all that data related to voice calls. Plus, they have the ability to analyze that data for key words, phrases, and certain behavioral attributes that relate stress. Certain source and destinations are flagged for greater analysis, not just in terms of the phone number, but the location.

As to all internet traffic, they do not have the ability to store the content of all internet traffic, but they certainly have the ability to record and store the source and destination IP addresses. However, they do have the ability to prioritize the packets they do want to store and then perform more detailed analysis on those.

However, there are ways to secure data and voice via open source PGP encryption based on keys long-enough such that the sum total of all computing power to this date would be unable to decrypt within a period of time measured in thousands of years. The US govt at one point tried to classify this technology and make its private use illegal, but then it was open-sourced.

As criminals/terrorists become increasingly sophisticated and use these technologies, the brute force approach becomes increasingly pointless for such encoded message, but rarely is the circle of communication between such elements ever perfectly secure and the brute force approach can pay benefits.

However, we should worry about such a capability being used by a government that loses sight of its true mission and begins to use this capability for other "trivial" criminal activities. It's been said that each of us breaks several laws every day.

traditionalguy said...

Everybody's calls are recorded for quality assurance. Then they are data mined and dossiers created on every person for quality assurance.

The rule of thumb is if they can do it, then they will do it.

bagoh20 said...

Imagine all the data occurring right this minute from all the calls among tens of millions of people continuously every second without stop. No they can't do it. They would if they could, but they can't, yet. They can record metadata of the call, and some targeted calls, but all of them, plus the data transfers of all computers? I don't think so. The government certainly can't alone. All the telecom companies maybe, but it would be a less than worthwhile expense, and it would be a considerable expense - multiplying the cost of every call.

el polacko said...

when i was hired by pacific bell way back in 1968 new employees were given an introductory tour of the facilities. the most memorable part of that tour was the shocking revelation (to me) that ma bell recorded ALL calls, including local calls...for what purpose or what connection to the government i do not know...but this is nothing new.

sinz52 said...

Telephone voice bandwidth is low; that's why music sounds so tinny when you listen to it over a landline phone.

Storing it--especially compressed--takes less storage than does digital music.

And if the purpose is just to store it for basic intelligibility (picking out key words and phrases) rather than for fidelity, then a very lossy algorithm can be used that greatly compresses the phone audio.

BTW, the Government had recorded
General Petraeus' phone conversations with his mistress Paula Broadwell--and that's how the investigation of him began.

They keyed on Petraeus' repeated use of the phrase "under the table." That's usually a metaphor for doing something surreptitious: Corruption? Espionage? The FBI wanted to know.

Of course, it turned out that Petraeus meant the phrase literally: He was having sex with his mistress on the floor under his table in his office.

Astro said...

All calls are monitored for key words and phrases. All calls to and from certain numbers are monitored.
Likewise for email.
Maybe not all are monitored by the FBI. The NSA and CIA are involved.

Hurray for the so-called 'Patriot Act'.

Moose said...

Bob, I'll choose "If you've done nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear" for $100...

crosspatch said...

It is technically possible that MANY of the calls are recorded and saved but probably not saved for long unless a phone number was already on some sort of watch list.

Telephone audio traffic is digital these days. It is an 8kbit/sec digital bit stream. Now think about a 1 terabyte disk drive. Each byte is 8 bits. So 1 second of conversation requires 1k bytes. So a 1tb disk drive could store about 32 years of telephone conversation if you constantly talked for 32 years.

What it requires is routing, cataloging, and storage. We would need to route a copy of the data stream to storage and make a note in a database someplace about what phone numbers were involved and where the data was stored so that it can be recalled if needed. That can be done automatically by computers.

I don't know how many telephone conversations are in progress at any given time but that would give you some idea of the storage requirements.

Most traffic could be "expired" out of storage fairly quickly. Other traffic might be kept longer depending on the level of interest. For example, someone on a "watch list" might have their traffic saved for a year in this hypothetical system. Someone who is under active surveillance with a warrant might have a copy of their conversation emailed to law enforcement. At 8kbits/sec a one hour conversation is only a 3.4 meg file.

It is technically possible to do this but the problem is that once you have all this data stored, how do you prevent misuse of it? As we saw with Joe The Plumber's information, a government that stacks an agency with partisans can do a lot of damage. In fact, it would be potentially possible to completely bug your political opposition.

But here is the bottom line: Do not assume a telephone or email or anything else unless it is encrypted, uses strong encryption, and you are positive that the keys to encryption/decryption are secure.

crosspatch said...

" Do not assume a telephone or email or anything else unless it is encrypted"

Meant to say: " Do not assume a telephone or email or anything else is private unless it is encrypted"

AReasonableMan said...

God it is sad how we have collectively acquiesced to this level of surveillance. If the gun nuts put the same level of vigilance into this issue that they put into defending the second amendment we would all be a lot better off. It's almost as if obsessive defense of nonthreatening levels of firepower is an officially sanctioned diversion to distract from the real problem.

Douglas2 said...

Perhaps at least one of them was a user of "Google Voice"
I certainly notice that the Google ads which are served to me sometimes seem oddly related to products I've mentioned in recent conversations using Google Voice...

BTW the data-rate required for parametric coding of speech can be super-low when the pleasantness of the voice sound is unimportant.

FedkaTheConvict said...

Glenn Greenwald's speculations:

Are all telephone calls recorded and accessible to the US government?

I'm not sure I believe all he claims although its quite highly informed speculation. And if he's correct we might as well do away with the Fourth Amendment.

AllenS said...

Bush isn't President, so not much will come of this information.

caseym54 said...

Phone-line quality audio takes negligible storage. If you wanted, say, AM radio quality, each minute of a phone call would take about 300KBytes. A billion 1 minute phone calls would take 300 Tera bytes which would cost maybe a hundred thousand dollars in hardware.

If there were 100 billion 1 minute calls a day (or some other combination), a year's storage would cost $3,65 billion dollars assuming no efficiency of scale.

Not saying they ARE doing it, but they COULD do it and hide it in any black budget they liked.

AllenS said...

Remember the outrage when the Patriot Act was conceived and all you heard about was Bush reading your mail and Cheney listening to your phone calls?

TomHynes said...

How much would it cost, with the cooperation of the phone companies, to record every phone call? Figure about 4kbytes per second, or 240k bytes per minute. Assume the average person is on the phone 30 minutes per day, or 7 megabytes per person per day. 300 million people, 2,100 terabytes per day. At $50 a terabyte, that is only about $110,000 per day, chump change.

AReasonableMan said...

AllenS said...
Remember the outrage when the Patriot Act was conceived and all you heard about was Bush reading your mail and Cheney listening to your phone calls?


No one is stopping those on the right from pushing back against the surveillance state.

Bob Ellison said...

Our menu items have recently changed. If you are a Republican, please press 1. If you are a weak Democrat, please press 2. If you are a terrorist, please hang up and call someone else.

AprilApple said...

ah. Jorge bush is in yer basemint listnin to yer fone calz.

damikesc said...

Working for a major cell carrier --- no, they we do not remotely have enough data storage capacity to store the data people assume we have.

Texts are small --- but we get a few BILLION of them a month. Figure out how much capacity you'd have to have to even hold them.

Then calculate a way to catalog them in a way that is more convenient than requiring somebody to sift through billions upon billions of texts.

Calls, while not as numerous, are far larger --- data-wise --- files than texts. The penetration of texts to people in this country is nearly 1:1. Consider how much data capacity one must have to store it. Consider how difficult it would be to catalog it to any usable degree.

Telephone audio traffic is digital these days. It is an 8kbit/sec digital bit stream. Now think about a 1 terabyte disk drive. Each byte is 8 bits. So 1 second of conversation requires 1k bytes. So a 1tb disk drive could store about 32 years of telephone conversation if you constantly talked for 32 years.

Multiply that by the several hundred million active cell phone numbers there are in the country. One person would be eminently doable. Multiple hundreds of millions? No. Logistically, it'd be nearly impossible.

Some calls are absolutely recorded. We have teams who specifically work with courts/law enforcement for that specifically. But EVERYBODY? No.

damikesc said...

Mind you, I think the amount of surveillance cell phone carriers do on their customers is horrendous. In their defense, the FCC can shut them down quickly if they don't play ball.

lemondog said...

Yodabite

Bruce Hayden said...

Call me naive, but it would be quite illegal for the federal government to record all the purely domestic calls under the federal wire tap act without a warrant. Recording call information, such as the two phone numbers, time, and duration would probably be legal, and therefore likely being done. This is termed "pen registry" from the time that pens were actually hooked to telephone lines. And, they can record purely foreign calls, unless one of the parties is known to be an American "person" (citizen or legal resident alien). But, once one end of the call is within the U.S., we start moving from FISA to wiretap laws, and purely into wiretap laws when both ends are w/i the U.S. Or, rather you can think of it this way: both ends in U.S. => Wiretap Act warrant; one end in the U.S. => FISA warrant; neither end in the U.S. => no warrant.

There are a number of differences between recording calls under the federal wiretap law and under FISA. One thing is that FISA courts issue FISA warrants, and they are considered national security secrets, meaning that no one without the proper security clearance and a need to know can listen to them, or even know that they exist. Federal Wiretap Act warrants are issued by federal district courts, pursuant to sworn statements showing probable cause, etc.

So, call me naive again, but if the feds are recording the contents of very many domestic calls, and esp. the contention about all domestic calls, there are a number of people in the federal government, and maybe phone companies, committing some pretty serious federal crimes.

Bruce Hayden said...

FYI - the Federal wiretap statute is: 18 USC Chapter 119 - WIRE AND ELECTRONIC COMMUNICATIONS INTERCEPTION AND INTERCEPTION OF ORAL COMMUNICATIONS and FISA is 50 USC Chapter 36, Subchapter I - ELECTRONIC SURVEILLANCE.

tim maguire said...

rhhardin is right. The fact of the call is recorded (that's no secret, it's right there on your phone bill), but the contents of the call are not.

Harold said...

The single best assumption is that everything you say over a phone is recorded, but will only be dredged up after the fact. And, because it is highly illegal to do so, even as the powers that be listen, the recording will never come to light. If the recording reveals that in addition to whatever wrong you did, you have a huge cache of illegal stuff located at point A, an accidental and purely co-incidental discovery of that cache will be made.

Algortihms search out connections, and some of those may be more closely monitores. Speaking of which, quote from another website:

"Last year Target, a marketing company, yet again proved the power of algorithms, in a startling way. Its software tracks purchases to predict habits. Using this, it chooses which coupons to send customers. It seemed to have gone wrong when it began sending a teenage girl coupons for nappies, much to the anger of her father, who made an official complaint. A little later, the New York Times reported that the father had phoned the company to apologise. "It turns out," he said, "there have been some activities in my house I haven’t been completely aware of." He was going to be a grandfather—and an algorithm knew before he did."

You have no privacy. Get over thinking that you do. Simply hope that you never come to the attention of important people.

bpm4532 said...

Let's think backwards, for a minute. If the NSA was only recording calls of interest or if they were only recording texts and web traffic of interest, they would not need anywhere near the capacity they have built and are building. The conclusion is they are recording MUCH more than this.

Bob Boyd said...

They also know which of us is buying Depends thru the Althouse Portal.
And due to the right-wing, extremist nature of this blog, that person has doubtless been flagged as an IPI (incontinent person of interest).

bagoh20 said...

If the calculations offered above are correct then I guess I'm wrong in thinking it's not worth the cost. If it's just a couple $billion/year, I can see it happening. It being illegal is not likely to be an impediment.

phx said...

They also know which of us is buying Depends thru the Althouse Portal.

But we've been promised they won't tell anyone. Right?

How do I find the terms of service?

danh said...

For those who might think that recording every phone call would take too much storage, notice how call quality has gone down in the last couple of years.
By using codecs with lower and lower bandwidth, they can save a lot of space. The storage every phone call in America takes up is (ok, talking out my ass a little) smaller than a few HD videos from youtube.

Achilles said...

AReasonableMan said...

"No one is stopping those on the right from pushing back against the surveillance state."

5/5/13, 3:28 PM

I will agree there are statist RINO's and they get no love from the rabble "tea-party" wing. But the left hates the tea-party wing more than the RINO's. The problem most of us have is the inconsistency on the left. It is as if all of that fierce moral urgency that the anti-war left espoused when Bush was president was just a political ploy to motivate the sheeple.

The other problem is this administration was flat out warned about these bombers by 2 governments, and yet they still put far more effort in fighting against and intimidating American citizens that disagree with their views on the second amendment. They haven't even bothered to hunt down the people responsible for Benghazi, but listening to him you would think Obama is more mistrustful of small business owners and entrepreneurs than the Muslim Brotherhood. He is busy trying to raise taxes on the former so he can give more money, tanks, and jet fighters to the latter.

It is almost as if the left is not really into this freedom thing.

Bruce Hayden said...

Let's think backwards, for a minute. If the NSA was only recording calls of interest or if they were only recording texts and web traffic of interest, they would not need anywhere near the capacity they have built and are building. The conclusion is they are recording MUCH more than this.

The problem there is the assumption that the NSA is recording domestic telephone conversations. It can legally record foreign telephone conversations without a warrant, and international calls with a FISA warrant, but requires a domestic wiretap warrant to record completely domestic voice conversations. Plenty of completely foreign traffic to record and fill up the depository with (defined as a conversation with both ends outside the U.S. and not known to include a "U.S. Person" - presumably meaning that none of the telephone numbers are American.

Carl said...

Recording it isn't the issue. It's finding what you want later. As a crude estimate, assume the average adult spends 20 minutes a day in conversation on the phone. For the entire country, that adds up to more than 200 billion hours a year of recorded conversation.

Who is going to listen to all of that? Even if you try to do it by computer, so far as I know the best voice recognition algorithms work no faster than real time. So to search a billion hours of recorded conversation for something takes...about a billion hours. Not even remotely plausible.

Fears of Big Brother driven by the capacity for storage are always silly. It's not storage. It's finding the needle you want in the world's biggest conceivable haystack.

Aridog said...

Interesting thread, but I think it misses something, one thing at least, that is painfully obvious (again) after Boston ... inefficient and ineffective coordination, sharing of data, and human analysis of said data. My experience with government IT capability, both domestic and military, is that @ Carl is correct: you may have multiple complete haystacks [different agencies], but the challenge is finding the needle.

There are tools to share and cross reference with, but my experience is that they are seldom utilized, thanks to *turf* issues or just senior executive incompetence. Tools include: Open Database Connectivity (ODBC), Java Database Connectivity (JDBC), and JDBC-to-ODBC bridges. All can be looked up via Google, Bing and Wiki if necessary.

I retired some time ago and I am sure even more and better tools are available now, but I used MS Access and MS SQL Server, with ODBC funactionaltiy, to join multiple Oracle Databases and query/mine, ad hoc at times, as well as fixed queries, for data pertinent to the problem at hand. In 10 years time I had hundreds of requests for data/information gathered my way, but no inquiry on how to do it...somebody presuming it was too hard? Who knows. It wasn't...it was extremely easy. I taught several people how to do it for themselves in less than 30 mintes...all they had to do was stay awake.

I did receive emails and phone calls about my designs in 2011, long after I was gone, and if I could assist in their utilization (finally?), etc....e.g., how did it work? I very courteously said I'd help, for free (a no-no in government) but that it wasn't necessary, and that a freshman IT student could figure how the "how its done" stuff by just looking at the SQL scripts in the bridge databases they'd found on their servers in the public sector that I contributed to, or just read "Access for Dummies"....I have no idea of they ever carried on.

In short, if I accept the idea that everything is recorded and stored, I'm not too afraid because I know how clumsy storage searches are in the government.

I have the impression that the utter simplicity of what I was doing spooked the IT & ITE big wheels....that'd be the same level guys who enabled frigging *PFC* Bradley Manning to directly access multiple databases globally with no need to know just by failing to manage roles & permissions. Everybody is a four star genera, right? Oh, wait ....Hi, Mr Assange! I've said that before.

My guess is that if you get flagged multiple times for something maybe then some agency will keep track...but still not share. DHS was created to enable sharing and coordination and they have succeeded in assuring that less occurs now than ever before...adding several layers of **intelligence** oversight assures idiocy. Kind of sad, really.

Aridog said...

Hey, here's an exercise that government can do....find and publish the Officer of the Day (Duty Officer) report(s) of the Benghazi incident on 9/11/1012. The reports, initial and follow on would have gone out immediately to DoD, State and CIA. Immediate means immediate...even in the old telex/teletype days the time limit was 10 minutes.

In the current fandango with potential *whistle-blowers* it is starting to sound like one Gregory Hicks was that officer of the day/duty officer. He says he "reported" the conflagration as an attack from moment one. Who'd he report to and how was it transmitted? I'd guess a secure phone link on L-3 STE, or equivalent, devices.

I'd also bet good money that no one will be able to find those communications....you know they would reveal that virtually everyone above the level of janitor in Washington DC knew the truth in an hour.

Yes, at this time, it DOES make a difference. It was not a *long time ago*. You can't interview 4 dead men, but you can talk to the 20+ survivors.

Robert Cook said...

"Call me naive, but it would be quite illegal for the federal government to record all the purely domestic calls under the federal wire tap act without a warrant."

You're naive. (Ba dump bump!)

Do you think the feds are afraid of committing acts that are illegal? Hell, when Bush admitted that thousands of illegal wiretaps were being conducted by his administration, many Americans cheered him! Congress retroactively made legal what had been criminal acts. Moreover, the feds have essentially given up trying to take action against egregious large scale criminal acts--the financial crimes of Wall Street and the big banks, and the torture committed by the previous administration--with excuses that, respectively, "they fear prosecuting the financial institutions will destabilize the global economy" and "let's look forward, not backward," (ignoring the fact that all criminal prosecutions are acts of looking backward, and, more pertinently, that the government is required by law to prosecute violations of the anti-torture laws...so Obama is breaking the law just by not prosecuting those who have tortured!).

If they won't pursue such gross criminality, why would they pursue themselves or allow anyone to pursue them for breaking the law?

"...call me naive again, but if the feds are recording the contents of very many domestic calls, and esp. the contention about all domestic calls, there are a number of people in the federal government, and maybe phone companies, committing some pretty serious federal crimes."

Yes.

Aridog said...

Robert Cook ... ignoring the omnibus indictment you've made and getting down to just the topic of government keeping track of phone calls and messages....yes, they dang sho' nuff did a bang up job of that with the Boston #1, right? Aided by two foreign governments, no less. Then on the same exact day, barely an hour apart, the FBI says it did not know #1 left the country and returned while the Department of Homeland Endangerment said they DID know...he "pinged" (be impressed with the tech jargon, ya' heah!).

Left hand meet right hand. Hello? Now if y'all would just coordinate your law breaking there might be less lives and limbs lost in Boston.

Robert Cook said...

Aridog,

Just because the government is almost certainly warehousing all our electronic communications in huge server farms doesn't mean they can efficiently sift it for information or that it will be useful in preventing imminent terrorist events, (except by dumb luck). The very mass of data being continually collected mitigates against finding such isolated signals amidst the vastness of digital noise.

Then there's also the incompetence, bureaucratic inefficiencies,and lack of coordination and cooperation between the various state and federal intelligence and law enforcement agencies such that, although we live in a total surveillance state, we are saved by sheer size and relative immobility of the beast.

Aridog said...

Robert Cook said ...

... the incompetence, bureaucratic inefficiencies,and lack of coordination and cooperation ...

You've got that right if referring to the SES ranks.

Without getting in to the whole field of Databases and Db management, which has progressed by leaps and bounds since I retired, yes there really ARE ways to coordinate and consolidate information, in particular relating to a topic point. I was doing it, independently within the U S Army, on global Db's back in the 1990's using simple old Dbase III. The "problem" is *turf* and *feeling threatened* by the capability. So long as roles & permissions are manged properly (which they seldom are) great efficiency can be achieved...and this *scares* some people, usually senior people. OMG...they might not need me anymore! Gah!

So, yes, you are right when you say ...

... we are saved by sheer size and relative immobility of the beast.

I'd add willful ignorance and turf fear, but the result is the same.