Tuesday, February 03, 2009

NOVA - The Spy Factory

NOVA airs "The Spy Factory" tonight at 8 pm. The show is being promoted as an inside look at the National Security Agency (NSA).

The PBS promo says -
"Three times the size of the CIA and far more secret, the NSA is comprised of top linguists, mathematicians, and technologists trained to decipher all kinds of communications—epitomizing the hidden world of high-tech, 21st-century surveillance. To show how this eavesdropping operates, NOVA follows the trail of just one typical e-mail sent from Asia to the U.S. Streaming as pulses of light into a fiber-optic cable, it travels across the Pacific Ocean, coming ashore in California, and finally reaching an AT&T facility in San Francisco, where the cable is split and the data sent to a secret NSA monitoring room on the floor below. This enables the NSA to intercept not only most Asian e-mail messages but also the entire U.S. internal Internet traffic."
The New York Times review spills the beans on that email from Asia, saying Mr. Bamford sent it from an Internet cafe in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, with a few of the key phrases that the agency’s supercomputers are programmed to detect. They aren’t exactly cryptic: “Blow up the White House” is one, another is “Destroy the Capitol Building.”

We never find out if the NSA actually intercepted the message.

The fact that the NSA has computers than can recognize key words and phrases is pretty ho-hum but I'm curious to know how tapping into an AT&T facility in San Francisco enables the NSA to intercept not only most Asian e-mail messages but also the entire U.S. internal internet traffic. Maybe that's why my internet is so slow sometimes...everything goes through a pipe in San Francisco.

The documentary is based on James Bamford's book The Shadow Factory

Postscript - After watching the show and reading a little bit more it's easier to understand how the NSA could intercept all internet communication. The splitters and data analyzers weren't just installed in the AT&T facility in San Francisco. According to Mark Klein the AT&T technician who worked at the San Francisco facility,
"I also discovered in my conversations with other technicians that other “secret rooms” were established in Seattle, San Jose, Los Angeles and San Diego. One of the documents I obtained also mentions Atlanta, and the clear inference in the logic of this setup, and the language of the documents, is that there are other such rooms across the country to complete the coverage possibly 15 to 20 or more."
It's impossible to know for sure but it appears that the NSA during the Bush/Cheney reign wasn't just vacuuming up email, phone and text messages from innocent Americans but branched out into credit card use, financial data and who knows what else. The current (2009) version of the NSA website says they are governed by the U.S. Constitution. The 2004 version specifically says the NSA, "strictly follows laws and regulations designed to preserve every American's privacy rights under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution."

I'm hoping that we can get back to a society where that statement is true.

One take away from the Nova show was that the NSA, FBI and CIA had information on Al Qaeda and Bin Laden prior to September 11th. The major problem was that the agencies were not sharing what they knew. There was nothing in the documentary that indicated that wide ranging interception of American's communications would make us any more secure - in fact just the opposite is true; we end up wondering if Big Brother is watching and the intelligence and law enforcement agencies end up with massive amounts of useless data.