Privacy SOS

NSA has “20 trillion” records of US communications, says whistleblower

Above: ACLU attorney Jameel Jaffer, author Jim Bamford, ACLU attorney Alexander Abdo, and NSA whistleblower Bill Binney at DefCon 20 in Las Vegas, July 2012.

You've likely heard by now that National Security Agency chief General Keith Alexander spoke at the DefCon hackers convention in Las Vegas over the weekend. Former NSA cryptographer and high level technocrat Bill Binney also spoke at the conference, on a panel with ACLU attorneys Jameel Jaffer and Alexander Abdo, along with author and NSA expert Jim Bamford. The tone and content of the two presentations could not have been more different.

The basic disagreement hinges on an explosive controversy that strikes at the heart of the imbalance between our right to know and the government's: The NSA says it doesn't wholesale intercept US communications, but Bill Binney and other whistleblowers say it does.

CNET's Elinor Mills:

Asked during the question-and-answer session whether the NSA keeps a file on every U.S. citizen, Alexander said that notion was "absolute nonsense," partly because managing 260 million or so individual citizen files would be impossible for the department to handle.
"No we don't. Absolutely not," he said. "Our job is foreign intelligence. We get oversight by Congress…everything we do is auditable by them, by the FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act)…and by the (Obama) Administration."
Wired's Kim Zetter:
William Binney, a former technical director at the NSA, said during a panel discussion that NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander was playing a “word game” and that the NSA was indeed collecting e-mails, Twitter writings, internet searches and other data belonging to Americans and indexing it.
“Unfortunately, once the software takes in data, it will build profiles on everyone in that data,” he said. “You can simply call it up by the attributes of anyone you want and it’s in place for people to look at.”
This isn't the first time that whistleblowers have accused General Alexander of playing "word games" regarding the NSA's monitoring of US communications.
Back in March 2012, Representative Hank Johnson asked Alexander if the NSA has "the technological capacity" to identify people "based upon the content of their emails." Alexander said, "No…the question is where are the emails and where is NSA's coverage. I assume by your question that those emails are in the United States. NSA does not have the ability to do that in the United States."
Binney and other whistleblowers, including former AT&T technical employee Mark Klein, have stated that the NSA in fact taps the vast majority of communications in the country at switching stations nationwide, directly from the sources.
The discrepancy between the two wildly differing presentations of the facts may hinge on a maddeningly obscure technical definition.
The military defines "collection" peculiarly, enabling the head of the NSA to say that the agency doesn't "collect" US communications when, using a common definition of the term, Binney and others allege it does precisely that. EFF's Trevor Timm explains:
Under Department of Defense regulations, information is considered to be “collected” only after it has been “received for use by an employee of a DoD intelligence component,” and “[d]ata acquired by electronic means is ‘collected’ only when it has been processed into intelligible form[,]”  So, under this definition, if the communications of millions of ordinary Americans were gathered and stored indefinitely in Utah, it would not be “collected” until the NSA “officially accepts, in some manner, such information for use within that component.”
In other words, your emails may be sitting in the NSA's giant databases, but the agency doesn't acknowledge having "collected" them until a human being actually reads them. The next time a journalist or elected official gets to ask General Alexander questions in public, they should address this issue directly.
Opaque definitions, secret laws
It isn't just word games that the government is playing. According to Binney, the government's secret interpretation of Section 215 of the Patriot Act allows it to suck up all of our email and internet traffic. Senator Ron Wyden has repeatedly spoken out about this secret interpretation, warning that people in the United States would be "very angry" if we learned how the government was interpreting the statute.
The question could not be more relevant today. Binney says that the surveillance of US persons has likely increased under the Obama administration, with approximately 20 trillion US to US communications assembled. "And from that data they can target anyone they want," he said.

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