31 May 2006
SETI League
PriUPS Project


Traffic Analysis - Part III

Well now I've done it!  I've exposed a secret government plot to record our telephone calls, expose our crimes and peccadilloes, and build a wall around the USA not just to keep them out, but to keep us in.  Right.  And I have some great photos of the aliens in the freezer at Area 51 not to mention the magnetic vortex generator at Wright-Pat.  In fact, I have little patience with and even less belief in "conspiracy theories."  They make fine entertainment when embodied in fiction, but are quite tedious when promulgated by axe-grinding, irrational bozeaux with vestigial critical faculties and even less of a sense of humor.  To avoid falling into this category, let me undertake some self criticism.

What parts of the preceding two items on traffic analysis are true?

Unlike my notion of using nuclear waste to heat your pool, which I revealed to be satire, I don't think there's anything in this series that conclusively isn't true.  I have no pipeline into our national security apparat, have nobody to ask, and would be extremely unlikely to receive an answer if I did.  So let's try assessing this ourselves:

Q: Is it even possible for NSA to get access to all this telephone data?
A:  Of course.  This is the organization that, along with the US Navy, tapped a Russian underwater telephone cable.  If they did that a decade or more ago, how hard can it be to get data from telephone company facilities in our own country?

Q:  How certain are you of just how much data has to be stored?
A:  Having made up the numbers, I'd have to give them pretty wide margins.  Even so, I'd be surprised if I was off by more than an order of magnitude.  That may seem like a lot, but it isn't - storage capabilities typically increase by that much in a couple of years.

Q:  Are you really concerned that someone named Hayden was nominated as DCI, (and confirmed since you started publishing these blogitems)?
A:  Not really.  Although DIRNSA is normally a military position and DCI civilian, I think I'll leave that decision to the president and the congress.  That's why we keep them around.  And yes, I'm aware that LeCarre's mole was Bill Haydon, so we can let Michael Hayden have the post.

Q:  Intelligence officials, administration officials, and legislators have all said that NSA is acting within the law.  Are they all lying?
A:  The law is, in my opinion, sufficiently flexible that they have the latitude to honestly believe that they are not.

Q:  Do YOU believe that they are lying?
A:  See above.  I have the great good fortune to not be a lawyer, and cannot even pretend to make that decision.

Q:  Wait a minute!  Aren't the telephone companies all claiming that they are NOT cooperating with the NSA in providing telephone records.  Are they lying to protect themselves from the inevitable lawsuits?
A:  Who says the NSA needs official cooperation?  Their job is collecting information.  That's what they do for a living.  If the telcos haven't managed to achieve deniability, then maybe they are being run by their "customer service" departments.

Q:  Well, then, what about the fact that all these calls are being recorded.  Doesn't that concern you?
A:  While I have no knowledge that they actually are being recorded, I'd be very disappointed if they were not.  I see absolutely no harm in the recording of the calls.  Practically every call made is now digitized and transmitted through an amazing technological labyrinth, and this has never been a concern.  Why, then, be concerned if some of those digits spend more than their normal few milliseconds of life somewhere in an even larger labyrinth in the caverns below the NSA?  It's only when they are decoded and scrutinized that the possibility of abuse should be raised; if a court order is required for this, then we are just as protected as we are (or aren't) already.

Intelligence agencies are positively compulsive about collecting information.  While one might argue that vigilance against privacy encroachments is an ever increasing requirement, one could also make a good case for that war having been lost many petabytes ago.  I do not despair, not because I have nothing to hide, but because everybody has something to hide.  I'm insufficiently paranoid, notwithstanding having been declared so by the NY Times, to think that they will "get" me first, or alone.

In "The Dead Past," Isaac Asimov foresaw a situation where everyone's past was an open book.  He ended the story with the expression "Happy Goldfish Bowl."  It's sad that we are being driven by terrorists to a society where the goldfish bowl simile seems apt.  But if it's inevitable, at least it seems to be for a good reason.

Richard Factor