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May 12, 2006

The Mind Boggles

More evidence that we're headed down the road to a dictatorship:

A majority of Americans initially support a controversial National Security Agency program to collect information on telephone calls made in the United States in an effort to identify and investigate potential terrorist threats, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll.

The new survey found that 63 percent of Americans said they found the NSA program to be an acceptable way to investigate terrorism, including 44 percent who strongly endorsed the effort. Another 35 percent said the program was unacceptable, which included 24 percent who strongly objected to it.

A slightly larger majority--66 percent--said they would not be bothered if NSA collected records of personal calls they had made, the poll found.

Underlying those views is the belief that the need to investigate terrorism outweighs privacy concerns. According to the poll, 65 percent of those interviewed said it was more important to investigate potential terrorist threats "even if it intrudes on privacy." Three in 10--31 percent--said it was more important for the federal government not to intrude on personal privacy, even if that limits its ability to investigate possible terrorist threats.

Half--51 percent--approved of the way President Bush was handling privacy matters

The Post hastens to caution us, however, that this perplexing support may evaporate at any moment:

Those views that could change or deepen as more details about the effort become known over the next few days.

As though we haven't had enough disclosures about the classified program over the past few months.

As though the USA Today piece contained anything not covered in far more detail by the NY Times in December or the National Journal in March. Could this be why Americans continue to support the NSA program?

Analysis of telephone traffic patterns helps analysts and investigators spot relationships among people that aren't always obvious. For instance, imagine that a man in Portland, Ore., receives a call from someone at a pay phone in Brooklyn, N.Y., every Tuesday at 9 a.m. Also every Tuesday, but minutes earlier, the pay phone caller rings up a man in Miami.

An investigator might look at that pattern and suspect that the men in Portland and Miami are communicating through the Brooklyn caller, who's acting as a kind of courier, to mask their relationship. Patterns like this have led criminal investigators into the inner workings of drug cartels and have proved vital in breaking these cartels up.

But we wouldn't want to use that kind of effective technique against mere terrorists.

Terrorists employ similar masking techniques. They use go-betweens to circuitously route calls, and they change cell phones often to avoid detection. Transactional data, however, capture those behaviors. If NSA analysts -- or their computers -- can find these patterns or signatures, then they might find the terrorists, or at least know which ones they should monitor.

Just after 9/11, according to knowledgeable sources, the NSA began intercepting the communications of specific foreign persons and groups named on a list. The sources didn't specify whether persons inside the United States were monitored as part of that list. But a former government official who is knowledgeable about NSA activities and the warrantless surveillance program said that this original list of people and groups, or others like it, could have formed the base of the NSA's surveillance of transactional data, the parts of a communication that aren't considered content.

If the agency started with a list of phone numbers, it could find all the numbers dialed from those phones. The NSA could then learn what numbers were called from that second list of numbers, and what calls that list received, and so on, "pushing out" the lists until the agency had identified a vast network of callers and their transactional data, the former official said.

The agency might eavesdrop on only a few conversations or e-mails. But starting with even an initial target list of, say, 10 phone numbers quickly yields a web of hundreds of thousands of communications, because the volume increases exponentially with every new layer of callers.

To find meaningful patterns in transactional data, analysts need a lot of it. They must set baselines about what constitutes "normal" behavior versus "suspicious" activity. Administration officials have said that the NSA doesn't intercept the contents of a communication unless officials have a "reasonable" basis to conclude that at least one party is linked to a terrorist organization.

To make any reasonable determination like that, the agency needs hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of call records, preferably as soon as they are created, said a senior person in the defense industry who is familiar with the NSA program and is an expert in the analytical tools used to find patterns and connections. Asked if this means that the NSA program is much broader and less targeted than administration officials have described, the expert replied, "I think that's correct."

In theory, finding reasonable connections in data is a straightforward and largely automated process. Analysts use computer programs based on algorithms -- mathematical procedures for solving a particular problem -- much the same way that meteorologists use data models to forecast the weather. Counter-terrorism algorithms look for the transactional indicators that match what analysts recognize as signs of a plot.

Of course, those algorithms must be sophisticated enough to spot many not-so-obvious patterns in a mass of data that are mostly uninteresting, and they work best when the data come from many sources. Algorithms have proven useful for detecting frequent criminal activity, such as credit card fraud.

"Historical data clearly indicate that if a credit card turns up in two cities on two continents on the same day, that's a useful pattern," says Jeff Jonas, a computer scientist who invented a technology to connect known scam artists who are on casinos' watch lists with new potential grifters, and is now the chief scientist of IBM Entity Analytics.

"The challenge of predicting terrorism is that unlike fraud, we don't have the same volume of historical data to learn from," Jonas said. "Compounding this is the fact that terrorists are constantly changing their methods and do their best to avoid leaving any digital footprints in the first place."

The obvious solution would be to write an algorithm that is flexible and fast enough to weigh millions of pieces of evidence, including exculpatory ones, against each other.

Any surveillance of a criminal suspect by necessity means that anyone who comes into contact with that suspect will also be surveilled to some extent.

But critics of the NSA "domestic spying program" contend that only the terrorists should be watched. As soon as they make contact with anyone inside the continental US (precisely the type of communication which would alert law enforcement to terrorists in our midst), the government should call off the dogs and pretend nothing has happened.

And to think our government actually held hearings to find out why 9/11 happened and how we could prevent anything like that from happening again.

Posted by Cassandra at May 12, 2006 08:38 AM

Comments

If you want to read good news just change what you read.

Moishe Reads an Arab Newspaper

A Jewish man was riding on the NY subway reading an Arab newspaper. A friend of his notices this strange phenomenon. Very upset, he approaches the newspaper reader.

"Moishe, have you lost your mind? Why are you reading an Arab newspaper?"

Moishe replied, "I used to read the Jewish newspaper, but what did I find? Jews being persecuted, Israel being attacked, Jews disappearing through assimilation and intermarriage, Jews living in poverty. So I switched to the Arab newspaper. Now, what do I find? Jews own all the banks, Jews control the media, Jews are all rich and powerful, Jews rule the world. The news is so much better!"

Posted by: Joatmoaf at May 12, 2006 11:51 AM

I object to all those objectors...especially the "strongly" variety.

Posted by: camojack at May 12, 2006 12:36 PM

That is the funniest joke I have heard in ages.

Posted by: Grim at May 12, 2006 01:10 PM

Is it possible that the people who complain the loudest about the NSA programs are the ones with the most to hide?

I would be critical of the NSA if they weren't monitoring my phone calls.

Sometimes I can almost hear the reverberation of laughter all the way here from a cave on the Pakistan/Afghanistan border.

Posted by: vet66 at May 13, 2006 11:48 AM

Joatmoaf that very funny.

Still chuckling over it....

Heya Camo, funny running into you here...lol

Posted by: sanity at May 14, 2006 12:47 AM

Good one Joatmoaf!

Posted by: Lisa Gilliam at May 14, 2006 11:10 AM

What's not so funny, but true nevertheless is a caption from a Navy Times cartoon.

"The American Media is always ready to believe an "un-disclosed source" over an official government spokesman every time."

Posted by: Joatmoaf at May 14, 2006 03:14 PM

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