The Right Coast
December 20, 2005
Tech side of NSA story
By Tom Smith
Mostly speculative, but still interesting.(via instapundit.)
To pile speculation on speculation, NSA may be using sophisticated network algorithms to identify nodes in the terrorist network (or the network, some of the nodes of which they are sure are terrorists) that look promising, and then tap in on them. Or it may be they take the numbers gotten from terrorist cell phones or notebook PCs to begin with, then move out some degrees of separation from there, so they still have something when the original numbers go dead. Then they may sift through all that chatter, looking for patterns with the algorithms their math geeks come up with (and they have some of the very best in the world). If that is what they are doing, there may not be much invasion of privacy involved, rather like having your email scanned by Gmail. If you send lots of emails to Pakistan asking when the "package" will arrive, maybe someone will take a look, and establish you really do seem to be talking about rugs.
There probably is a law review article here (though one a top 20 review would never publish, because they would not be able to understand it) about how to adapt the law of search to technologies that depend on much more sophisticated treatments of probability than "probable cause." So for example, if there is only a one in one hundred chance that an email pertains to terrorism, but it is very cheap to scan it, then shouldn't you scan it, given that only a robot is peeping, and it will get more scrutiny only if that scan leads to increase the probability that the message pertains to terrorism. And lots of other stuff much more complicated than that.
NOW this is both cool and fascinating. It says inter alia no one at the NSA would have talked, because they are so committed to secrecy, unless they thought something very big and very wrong was going on. Maybe they have some kind of sampling technology that allows them to monitor say, all calls going to Pakistan, and pull out those that are marginally more suspicious, subject those to more filters, and so on, until you have a good probability, at least in a cost justified sense, that you are listening to somebody who knows something useful. And since lots of other bloggers are expressing their emotional reactions -- it's all so creepy, so scary, so disturbing, what do I tell little Sally about her email messages, etc. etc. -- let me just express briefly my irrelevant, emotional reaction, which is that I hope we use our vast technological superiority to crush the terrorists like the little dung beetles they are.
CLUES as to the maybe new technology NSA may be using. Jay Rockefeller released this CYA letter, as his heroic contribution to the war effort. He notes he is neither a technician or a lawyer (nor indeed a particularly bright bulb in any sense), but that the project described reminded him of TIA.