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NSA: How They Spy

Declan McCullagh and Anne Broache have put together a fascinating pair of stories for News.com that outline what the NSA's domestic spying program might look like. Part one surveyed telecom companies, to find out which ones cooperated with the spooks. Part two sketches out how the NSA might be able to listen in. A few excerpts are below. But do yourself a favor and read the whole thing.cable_map.gif

99 percent of the world's long-distance communications travel through [undersea] fiber links... It's easiest to tap those underwater cables when they make landfall instead of trying to do it underwater, analysts say."The easiest thing to do would be to somehow get an agreement with a provider and just simply co-exist in a building, one of the main fiber stations, (peering) points or whatever. In other words, work out something with either a long-haul provider or with an employee." ...Phill Shade, a network engineer for WildPackets who is the company's director of international support services, says such interception would be easy, at least for the NSA. WildPackets sells network analysis software.An eavesdropper could just "take something off the shelf and use it to make copies of traffic and just save the copies," Shade said. "Our software captures packets; the data recorder stores terabytes of information. We use it for forensic analysis and troubleshooting networks. When you call back and say, 'I was hacked Tuesday night at 11:30,' we look back and see what was going on Tuesday night."Making sense of that massive volume of data is not exactly trivial. While it may be easy to perform keyword searches and identify flagged names and phone numbers, detailed analysis typically takes human intervention. "For the near future, at least, our ability to gather info through various surreptitious and open means is going to be a lot better than our ability to analyze it," said Richard Hunter, vice president of executive programs at Gartner Group...Because of the way that the Internet backbone and the telecommunication network are structured, NSA operatives likely would not have to leave the country to install taps. The vast majority of Internet traffic is routed through switches on American soil, which can be directly monitored with (or without) the cooperation of backbone providers...In 2005, an estimated 94 percent of that "inter-regional" traffic passed through U.S. switches, Mauldin said. Many other communications links run around in the U.K., a country that has a history of sharing communications intelligence with U.S. spy agencies.That's a boon to the NSA, which reportedly carries out its surveillance activities in a "wholesale" way. That means it potentially scoops up millions of phone calls and e-mail messages and feeds the data to its supercomputers--considered some of the most powerful and plentiful in the world--to comb for red flags and people on a so-called watch list.
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