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[infowar.de] NSA Looks for More Ways to Mine Data
NYT, February 25, 2006
Taking Spying to Higher Level, Agencies Look for More Ways to Mine Data
By JOHN MARKOFF
PALO ALTO, Calif., Feb. 23 — A small group of National Security Agency
officials slipped into Silicon Valley on one of the agency's periodic
technology shopping expeditions this month.
On the wish list, according to several venture capitalists who met with
the officials, were an array of technologies that underlie the fierce
debate over the Bush administration's anti-terrorist eavesdropping
program: computerized systems that reveal connections between seemingly
innocuous and unrelated pieces of information.
The tools they were looking for are new, but their application would fall
under the well-established practice of data mining: using mathematical and
statistical techniques to scan for hidden relationships in streams of
digital data or large databases.
Supercomputer companies looking for commercial markets have used the
practice for decades. Now intelligence agencies, hardly newcomers to data
mining, are using new technologies to take the practice to another level.
But by fundamentally changing the nature of surveillance, high-tech data
mining raises privacy concerns that are only beginning to be debated
widely. That is because to find illicit activities it is necessary to turn
loose software sentinels to examine all digital behavior whether it is
innocent or not.
"The theory is that the automated tool that is conducting the search is
not violating the law," said Mark D. Rasch, the former head of
computer-crime investigations for the Justice Department and now the
senior vice president of Solutionary, a computer security company. But
"anytime a tool or a human is looking at the content of your
communication, it invades your privacy."
When asked for comment about the meetings in Silicon Valley, Jane Hudgins,
a National Security Agency spokeswoman, said, "We have no information to
Data mining is already being used in a diverse array of commercial
applications — whether by credit card companies detecting and stopping
fraud as it happens, or by insurance companies that predict health risks.
As a result, millions of Americans have become enmeshed in a vast and
growing data web that is constantly being examined by a legion of
Internet-era software snoops.
Technology industry executives and government officials said that the
intelligence agency systems take such techniques further, applying
software analysis tools now routinely used by law enforcement agencies to
identify criminal activities and political terrorist organizations that
would otherwise be missed by human eavesdroppers.
One such tool is Analyst's Notebook, a crime investigation "spreadsheet"
and visualization tool developed by i2 Inc., a software firm based in
The software, which ranges in price from as little as $3,000 for a
sheriff's department to millions of dollars for a large government agency
like the Federal Bureau of Investigation, allows investigators to organize
and view telephone and financial transaction records. It was used in 2001
by Joyce Knowlton, an investigator at the Stillwater State Correctional
Facility in Minnesota, to detect a prison drug-smuggling ring that
ultimately implicated 30 offenders who were linked to Supreme White Power,
a gang active in the prison.
Ms. Knowlton began her investigation by importing telephone call records
into her software and was immediately led to a pattern of calls between
prisoners and a recent parolee. She overlaid the calling data with records
of prisoners' financial accounts, and based on patterns that emerged, she
began monitoring phone calls of particular inmates. That led her to coded
messages being exchanged in the calls that revealed that seemingly
innocuous wood blocks were being used to smuggle drugs into the prison.
"Once we added the money and saw how it was flowing from addresses that
were connected to phone numbers, it created a very clear picture of the
smuggling ring," she said.
Privacy, of course, is hardly an expectation for prisoners. And credit
card customers and insurance policyholders give up a certain amount of
privacy to the issuers and carriers. It is the power of such software
tools applied to broad, covert governmental uses that has led to the
deepening controversy over data mining.
In the wake of 9/11, the potential for mining immense databases of digital
information gave rise to a program called Total Information Awareness,
developed by Adm. John M. Poindexter, the former national security
adviser, while he was a program manager at the Defense Advanced Research
Although Congress abruptly canceled the program in October 2003, the
legislation provided a specific exemption for "processing, analysis and
collaboration tools for counterterrorism foreign intelligence."
At the time, Admiral Poindexter, who declined to be interviewed for this
article because he said he had knowledge of current classified
intelligence activities, argued that his program had achieved a tenfold
increase in the speed of the searching databases for foreign threats.
While agreeing that data mining has a tremendous power for fighting a new
kind of warfare, John Arquilla, a professor of defense analysis at the
Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., said that intelligence
agencies had missed an opportunity by misapplying the technologies.
"In many respects, we're fighting the last intelligence war," Mr. Arquilla
said. "We have not pursued data mining in the way we should."
Mr. Arquilla, who was a consultant on Admiral Poindexter's Total
Information Awareness project, said that the $40 billion spent each year
by intelligence agencies had failed to exploit the power of data mining in
correlating information readily available from public sources, like
monitoring Internet chat rooms used by Al Qaeda. Instead, he said, the
government has been investing huge sums in surveillance of phone calls of
"Checking every phone call ever made is an example of old think," he said.
He was alluding to databases maintained at an AT&T data center in Kansas,
which now contain electronic records of 1.92 trillion telephone calls,
going back decades. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital-rights
advocacy group, has asserted in a lawsuit that the AT&T Daytona system, a
giant storehouse of calling records and Internet message routing
information, was the foundation of the N.S.A.'s effort to mine telephone
records without a warrant.
An AT&T spokeswoman said the company would not comment on the claim, or
generally on matters of national security or customer privacy.
But the mining of the databases in other law enforcement investigations is
well established, with documented results. One application of the database
technology, called Security Call Analysis and Monitoring Platform, or
Scamp, offers access to about nine weeks of calling information. It
currently handles about 70,000 queries a month from fraud and law
enforcement investigators, according to AT&T documents.
A former AT&T official who had detailed knowledge of the call-record
database said the Daytona system takes great care to make certain that
anyone using the database — whether AT&T employee or law enforcement
official with a subpoena — sees only information he or she is authorized
to see, and that an audit trail keeps track of all users. Such information
is frequently used to build models of suspects' social networks.
The official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was discussing
sensitive corporate matters, said every telephone call generated a record:
number called, time of call, duration of call, billing category and other
details. While the database does not contain such billing data as names,
addresses and credit card numbers, those records are in a linked database
that can be tapped by authorized users.
New calls are entered into the database immediately after they end, the
official said, adding, "I would characterize it as near real time."
According to a current AT&T employee, whose identity is being withheld to
avoid jeopardizing his job, the mining of the AT&T databases had a notable
success in helping investigators find the perpetrators of what was known
as the Moldovan porn scam.
In 1997 a shadowy group in Moldova, a former Soviet republic, was tricking
Internet users by enticing them to a pornography Web site that would
download a piece of software that disconnected the computer user from his
local telephone line and redialed a costly 900 number in Moldova.
While another long-distance carrier simply cut off the entire nation of
Moldova from its network, AT&T and the Moldovan authorities were able to
mine the database to track the culprits.
Much of the recent work on data mining has been aimed at even more
sophisticated applications. The National Security Agency has invested
billions in computerized tools for monitoring phone calls around the world
— not only logging them, but also determining content — and more recently
in trying to design digital vacuum cleaners to sweep up information from
Last September, the N.S.A. was granted a patent for a technique that could
be used to determine the physical location of an Internet address —
another potential category of data to be mined. The technique, which
exploits the tiny time delays in the transmission of Internet data,
suggests the agency's interest in sophisticated surveillance tasks like
trying to determine where a message sent from an Internet address in a
cybercafe might have originated.
An earlier N.S.A. patent, in 1999, focused on a software solution for
generating a list of topics from computer-generated text. Such a capacity
hints at the ability to extract the content of telephone conversations
automatically. That might permit the agency to mine millions of phone
conversations and then select a handful for human inspection.
As the N.S.A. visit to the Silicon Valley venture capitalists this month
indicates, the actual development of such technologies often comes from
In 2003, Virage, a Silicon Valley company, began supplying a voice
transcription product that recognized and logged the text of television
programming for government and commercial customers. Under perfect
conditions, the system could be 95 percent accurate in capturing spoken
text. Such technology has potential applications in monitoring phone
conversations as well.
And several Silicon Valley executives say one side effect of the 2003
decision to cancel the Total Information Awareness project was that it
killed funds for a research project at the Palo Alto Research Center, a
subsidiary of Xerox, exploring technologies that could protect privacy
while permitting data mining.
The aim was to allow an intelligence analyst to conduct extensive data
mining without getting access to identifying information about
individuals. If the results suggested that, for instance, someone might be
a terrorist, the intelligence agency could seek a court warrant
authorizing it to penetrate the privacy technology and identify the person
With Xerox funds, the Palo Alto researchers are continuing to explore the
Scott Shane contributed reporting from Washington for this article.
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