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Telephone Man

(The retooled, recycled version of the earlier post mentioned. Periodical option fell through so baby goes shoeless this month ;-) )

After General Michael Hayden was nominated by President Bush for the directorship of the Central Intelligence Agency, it took mere days for stories about alleged illegalities perpetrated during his tenure at the National Security Agency to surface. The timing of these stories is certainly suspect and the headlines are appropriately salacious, but two things have been strikingly absent from the public debate about domestic intelligence activities: clarity and perspective.

As far as clarity goes, it seems that actual details about the intelligence programs that are leaked to the press seem to mean little. This ensures that any subsequent debate is skewed almost beyond recovery. Were most people – especially our elected representatives – able to get beyond the sensational headlines and properly assess what is taking place, they would be less inclined to fight for microphone time in order to register their angst at the rise of the police state under President Bush. This is particularly true of those in the political minority, who are briefed on such programs and are happy to let them continue until leakers provide them with that Cassablanca moment when they are shocked, shocked to find counterterrorism work being done here!

The latest revelation about NSA collecting telephone numbers sounds positively evil, but uncovering the real story requires very little digging. The program in question is tracking phone numbers, not call content. The technique at work is called Social Network Analysis, which is a fancy way of helping identify who is occupying what position in a network. Think of your network of family and friends and make a mental note of those few people who always seem to be at the center of things; organizing happy hours, coordinating holiday parties, and making those friend-of-a-friend connections. If those key people suddenly disappeared imagine how much more difficult communicating and organizing would become. Now replace “friend” with “terrorist network” and “parties” with “plots” and suddenly analyzing telephone connections doesn’t seem like such a bad idea.

For the sake of perspective let us remember that it is difficult to assess from press reports the full scope of what our intelligence services are doing with public or private information. When you compare what those who have sworn to defend the nation are doing with this data against what another little-understood group is doing with that same data; you might reconsider any misgivings you have about the government’s motivations.

The parameters under which US intelligence agencies collect and analyze data on citizens or so-called “US Persons” are derived from policies crafted in the wake of earlier abuses such as the CIA’s CHAOS and MERRIMAC domestic espionage programs or the FBI’s COINTELPRO investigations. Many thought that the passage of the PATRIOT Act would herald a return to the bad-old-days; yet substantiated cases of abuse have proven non-existent. Discrepancies have been noted by various government watchdogs, who are quick to ascribe nefarious motivations. Further investigations inevitably reveal that ignorance – not malice – is to blame.

The government is trying to identify and track terrorists and their supporters who are in our midst. Programs like the ones associated with the NSA are designed to whittle away the amount of hay in the proverbial stack. They leave the needle finding others who are chartered to do such work. The system isn’t perfect but is has its checks and balances. If a recently deceased member of al-Qaida has your phone number stored in the memory of his cell phone, someone is going to pay you a visit. It should become apparent fairly quickly if your phone number is actually one number off from the number of a US-based terrorist, your data is going to get tossed. The goal of mining for data, like mining for gold, is to find valuable nuggets not useless rock.

There are those who would have you believe that in gathering phone numbers and attempting to extrapolate potentially deadly connections that the government is doing something inappropriate. Yet credit card companies and data brokers have long since mastered the technology and methodology needed to effectively gather and exploit your personal information. There is no question about the legality of their work, but they do this not for your safety and security, but for their own profit.

Consider the customers of the Capitol One credit card company. When any of the firm’s tens of millions of credit card customers calls, company computers correlate the data they have on customer buying patterns and recent purchase activity to predict why they are calling. The call is routed to just the right customer service representative who knows with near certainty what he needs to do to solve their problem and what additional products or services to offer that they are likely to buy. All of this happens in a fraction of a second.

ChoicePoint is one of nation’s largest brokers of personal information. They can reach out and grab criminal records, motor vehicle records, credit histories, business records and a wealth of other data about you. ChoicePoint’s recent acquisition of investigative analysis software firm i2 – widely used in the intelligence and law enforcement communities – means that any paying customer can build an impressive database of consumer information that they can point and click their way through for almost any purpose they chose.

But you hate telemarketing calls and being cross-sold so you signed up for the Do-Not-Call Registry. Unfortunately you didn’t bother to read the fine print, and you promptly turned around and ordered a pizza delivery, signed up for the grocery store discount card, the coffee shop discount card, etc. Guess what? Companies consider those transactions as the establishment of a business relationship and by law they can now call all they want and the Do-Not-Call Registry be damned. To muck things up even further, unless you expressly forbid them to, those same firms are going to share your information with other businesses, which will result in more calls and more entries into more private databases.

The government takes impressive steps to make sure that your personal information is not compromised by outsiders, which is more than can be said for private firms. Just last year ChoicePoint’s carelessness allowed the records of nearly 160,000 citizens to be compromised. The number of citizens that the NSA may have listened to during the four-year existence of it’s terrorist surveillance program are dwarfed by the number of citizens who have actually had their identities stolen, their money taken, and their lives disrupted due to the mistakes of private concerns in just the last year.


You can call General Hayden and the rest of our intelligence community a lot of things, but careless invaders of privacy and crass profiteers they are not. Terrorists want to separate us from the corporal world. Does it make any sense not to pursue them with all the techniques within our power – including the very limited use of personal information – with at least as much skill and vigor as the people who are trying separate us from our money?

Late addition: long lost Jon Holdaway – a real live lawyer – at Intel-Dump weighs in.

Michael Tanji

Michael Tanji

Michael Tanji spent nearly 20 years in the US intelligence community. Trained in both SIGINT and HUMINT disciplines he has worked at the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, and the National Reconnaissance Office. At various points in his career he served as an expert in information warfare, computer network operations, computer forensics, and indications and warning. A veteran of the US Army, Michael has served in both strategic and tactical assignments in the Pacific Theater, the Balkans, and the Middle East.