The NSA Wiretapping Program

Until recently, little was known about how data was collected and analyzed by the NSA as part of the “war on terror.” A report from Wired.com explains in great detail how the FBI quietly built a sophisticated system that performs instant wiretaps on almost any communications device.

The information was obtained through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). The surveillance system is called DCSNet, short for Digital Collection System Network. It connects FBI wiretapping rooms to switches controlled by the phone companies, cellular companies and internet-telephony providers and is deeply woven into the telecom infrastructures.

DCSNet is a suite of software used to collect, sift and store phone numbers, phone calls and text messages. Although several details of the system were redacted in the document acquired by the EFF, it’s known that DCSNet includes at least three collection components that run on Windows-based computers:

  • The DCS-3000, aka Red Hook handles pen-registers and trap-and-traces — collects numbers dialed from a telephone
  • The DCS-5000 is a classified system used for wiretaps targeting spies and terrorists
  • The DCS-6000 aka Digital Storm captures and collects content of phone calls and text messages

Working together, the components let FBI agents play back recordings, even while information is being captured, create master wiretap files, send digital recordings to translators, track the estimated location of targets using cell-tower information and stream information to surveillance vans. FBI agents around the country connect through a private encrypted backbone seperate from the internet run by Sprint. For a more detailed explanation of how it works, read the report from Wired.com.

Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act

In 1994 at the urging of the Justice Department, Congress passed the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) requiring backdoors in U.S. telephone switches. CALEA requires telecoms to install telephone-switching equipment that meets detailed wiretapping standards.

Now the FBI can directly log on to the telecom’s network once the carrier turns on the wiretap and the communications data on the target streams into the FBI’s computers in real time.

Data Security Concerns

According to the FBI, the system’s security is more than adequate; partially due to wiretaps still requiring the assistance of the telecom and partially due to other physical security measures such as firewalls. If the Federal Government’s previous track record at keeping data secure is any indication though, it won’t be secure enough.

The documents obtained by the EFF show another story. A 2003 audit uncovered numerous security vulnerabilities in DCSNet. The DCS-3000 machines lacked adequate logging, had insufficient password management, didn’t have antivirus software and used shared logins instead of individual accounts among other things.

In June of this year, the Chinese military reportedly hacked into a Pentagon computer network showing how governmental computer systems can be disrupted at critical times. Supposedly classified information wasn’t compromised but the server had to be shut down. The Pentagon is still investigating how much data was downloaded.

How Effective Is The Data Collection?

Despite reportedly flagging almost 20,000 people in 2006, few people were arrested or denied entry into the U.S. State, local and federal agencies and U.S. embassies overseas rely on the massive database to pinpoint terrorism suspects. Little is known by the public about how the system works, how many people get detained, or the criteria used to identify potential suspects. For obvious reasons the government will not discuss it.

Of the almost 20,000 people flagged, more than half were logged by Customs and Border Protection officers who turned back or handed over 550 people to authories. Most of them were foreigners and according to the FBI, very few of them were arrested.

The database is maintained by the Terrorist Screening Center — joint operations between the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security.

The database includes information from the Transportation Security Administration’s air passenger no-fly list, the State Department’s Consular Lookout and Support System list and the FBI’s Violent Gang and Terrorist Organizations Files. As of last fall, the database contained at least 235,000 records according to the Justice Department’s Inspector General.

The list does work, albeit occasionally. Because of the database, Egyptian citizen Omar Ahmed Ali who committed a 2005 suicide bombing in Qatar that killed one British citizen and injured 12 was prevented entry into the U.S. after “numerous attempts.”

Improvements Are Needed

U.S. citizens who are stopped and questioned are not told they’re on a watch list. There are some travelers who are repeatedly stopped:

Abe Dabdoub, a U.S. citizen lives in Cleveland with his wife and two kids, also U.S. citizens. He has been detained 21 times at Michigan’s border with Canada. The first four times he was handcuffed. When asked why he was being stopped, Customs officials told him “we can’t tell you, for national security reasons.” Customs officials wouldn’t comment to the Washington Post on his case.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has filed a class-action lawsuit against the government on the behalf of 10 muslim Americans who allege they were detained and mistreated after being placed on a watch list without grounds.

Francisco “Kiko” Martinez is a Colorado lawyer who was detained twice in recent years by police officers who pulled him over. Once he was held for more than three hours and once in handcuffs. During legal proceedings, Martinez learned he was on a watch list.

Martinez sued the government and won $106,500, although the settlement didn’t address any underlying constitutional claims, Martinez asserts that it “shows that I shouldn’t have been on this terrorism watch list in the first place” and that “the government is misusing this so-called war against terrorism to target its domestic political opponents.” The Justice Department also declined to comment to the Washington Post.

Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy says the growing use of this database magnifies the consequences of errors that are entered into it and that there needs to be a reliable way to correct bad information and protect the innocent.

There’s no question that systems are needed to keep U.S. citizens safe, but the secrecy of the U.S. government raises too many suspicions. The misuse of powers by the government with no accountability led by a man who has twice reportedly said “if this were a dictatorship, it’d be a heck of a lot easier, just so long as I’m the dictator.” The same man who holds himself above the law and believes that if he says it, that means it’s right.

Who keeps the citizens safe from the spies in an administration riddled with blatant lies and corruption? The often over-used catch-all phrase involving “fighting the war on terror” used by the White House to cover all the illegal activities under this administration is a grand delusion that keeps reoccuring. You can only screw your entire country over so many times before your country does something about it.

It’s time for our other elected legislators to do the right thing before the Constitution goes down in flames and the U.S. becomes one erroneously racially profiled nation. The violations of civil liberties that have already occured is mind-numbing. This has been going on for years now and it’s just a small sampling of a much larger and darker picture in the fleecing of America. You can write to Congress and/or the Senate to voice your opinion. How it ends up remains to be seen.

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