NSA: In your country, recording all your calls

The U.S. government has developed and deployed a surveillance system that records every single telephone call made in an unnamed country outside the U.S. for up to 30 days.

According to a story from Tuesday’s Washington Post, the program, code-named MYSTIC, began in 2009 and reached full capacity in its first target country by 2011. According to the Post, MYSTIC can collect and store a rolling cache of 30 days of telephone calls, which can be reviewed with a tool codenamed RETRO, short for “retrospective retrieval.”

According to the article, it is possible that the MYSTIC program has been expanded beyond its initial target country. The Post links to a 2013 “secret intelligence budget” naming five additional countries where MYSTIC provides “comprehensive metadata access and content.”

However, the Post declined to name the country in which MYSTIC/RETRO is currently deployed or the other nations in which it was proposed for deployment, citing requests from U.S. officials.

Technically possible

The technical workings of the program are open to speculation, but several factors seem to make this program possible:

• Relatively few large companies, including Huawei, Alcatel-Lucent, Ericsson, Nokia Siemens Networks, and Cisco Systems, produce the majority of the world’s telecoms hardware;

• The switch to digital communications and fiber-optic, rather than copper wire, makes large scale digital recording easier;

• New large fiber optic cables flowing around the planet are known and mapped, as are the countries that lack robust connections to global networks, making them more vulnerable to network disruptions and wiretapping; and,

• The U.S. has been actively engaged in building the telecoms infrastructure of certain conflict and post-conflict countries, such as Afghanistan.

If the NSA were to gain access to the networking equipment near the core of a relatively small country’s centralized telecoms network, it could likely record 100% of their phone calls.

Tuesday’s disclosure marks the first time the NSA has been shown to record the content of all voice calls, regardless of who made them, across a wide geographic region.

Bulk collection lives on

Administration officials have declined to confirm the Post story. However, the existence of MYSTIC/RETRO would fit a pattern of evidence showing the NSA continues to collect bulk user data outside the U.S., a practice which Access believes violates fundamental human rights.

Access recently submitted to the U.N. Human Rights Committee a comment showing that bulk surveillance programs that gather user data indiscriminately – rather than data of those suspected of crimes – contravenes international law and the International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance. These principles provide national governments with a framework to evaluate whether current or proposed surveillance laws and practices are consistent with human rights.

A number of independent review groups have repeatedly found that bulk collection is likely illegal, and almost certainly useless for its purported purpose of preventing terrorism. Both the independent President’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies and the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, or PCLOB, have recommended reforming or even terminating existing programs. The revelations on MYSTIC were briefly mentioned at yesterday’s PCLOB probe into data collection practices on non-U.S. persons, in a hearing held yesterday on Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act.

Recording U.S. phone calls too?

To date, the conversation on bulk collection has largely centered on the collection of U.S. telephone records, or metadata, under Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act. In repeated public appearances, various government officials from the NSA, Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and the White House have consistently said they’re not listening in on the content of phone calls of U.S. persons. Thus far, no programs have been revealed as part of the Snowden disclosures that would indicate otherwise.

However, the existence of MYSTIC/RETRO calls to mind an exchange from May 2013, in the wake of the Boston marathon bombing. As part of a discussion on law enforcement efforts, an FBI agent appeared to indicate in a television interview that a program for call collection—with capabilities similar to those ascribed to MYSTIC/RETRO—existed within the United States.

Given the apparent falsehood of previous government denials regarding mass phone surveillance, the latest revelations showing bulk recording has occurred raise serious questions about the extent to which phone calls are being surveilled domestically in the United States.