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Bush Eavesdropping - How's it Done

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In December, The New York Times revealed that the Bush Administration, has been eavesdropping on our phone calls, without a court order. Although the exact nature of this surveillance is highly classified, it appears that the White House has gone on a massive "fishing trip;" one that invades the privacy of thousands of ordinary Americans and violates the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Act. This is the first of three articles about Administration eavesdropping - here, I dust off my techie skills and suggest how it's being done.

The White House has resolutely defended warrantless eavesdropping, saying that we are at war and clandestine surveillance helps to protect us. in a speech at Kansas State University, President Bush explained, "What I'm talking about is the intercept of certain communications emanating between somebody inside the United States and outside the United States; and one of the numbers would be reasonably suspected to be an al Qaeda link or affiliate. In other words, we have ways to determine whether or not someone can be an al Qaeda affiliate or al Qaeda. And if they're making a phone call in the United States, it seems like to me we want to know why."

Later the same day, the Attorney General, Alberto Gonzales, appeared on The PBS News Hour. Asked why the Administration didn't honor FISA, which requires a special court to authorize eavesdropping, Gonzales responded, "For operational reasons, there were some issues that made it difficult to use FISA."

The Attorney General wouldn't elaborate, but others have suggested "operational reasons" why the Bush Administration isn't using FISA to obtain a warrant. One would be that the sending or receiving telephone number was obtained using torture or that the informant is held in violation of US law. However, most civil-rights activists believe that the tapped phone number resulted from a gigantic fishing expedition, so called "data mining," that the courts would not approve of.

Most Americans don't understand what is meant by "data mining," a digital "fishing expedition." To clarify what's happening, I've created a hypothetical scenario: Suppose that my daughter is in India visiting her in laws. I call her to wish her a happy birthday. Instead of dialing the country code for India, 91, I dial the country code for Pakistan, 92; and instead of dialing the city code for Bombay, 22, I dial the city code for Karachi, 21. I make a transposition error. As a result, instead of getting my daughter's extended family, I reach the office of the "Jihad R Us" madrasah. When I am greeted in Urdu, I realize my mistake and hang up. Meanwhile, the National Security Agency computers monitoring international calls note that I have contacted "an organization that is affiliated with al-Qaida."

In addition to phone traffic, the NSA computers have access to all my personal and financial data. Alerted by my call, their software scans my digital records and finds that I recently made a contribution, by means of my Visa card, to an organization in Pakistan - they don't care that it was for humanitarian assistance to earthquake refugees. At this point, the NSA computers flag me as a "possible terrorist sympathizer;" their software decision logic, their algorithm looks at my data and computes my "threat score," like the FICO score assigned to determine credit worthiness. Because I have a threat score above a certain threshold, the NSA software makes an algorithmic decision to monitor my phone calls, read my email, and check my financial transactions. The NSA computer system goes "fishing" in my personal data. This is "data mining;" looking for patterns in massive amounts of data. In this case the NSA software is looking for actions - phone calls, money transfers - that indicate an al-Qaida supporter.

According to New York Times reporters Eric Lichtbau and James Risen the automated process that I have described, the decision to place Americans under digital surveillance has been made roughly 500 times per day, every day since 9/11. Hundreds of thousands of Americans have been caught in NSA's fishing net. This explains why the Bush Administration hasn't followed the FISA procedures; the NSA computer system is flagging many Americans as suspects and doing so without probable cause - the FISA courts wouldn't permit this if they knew about it.

Bear in mind that all the eavesdropping decisions are made by computer software. The NSA software scrutinizes my daily transaction stream auto magically; they eavesdrop on all my phone and email traffic as well as my credit card and bank transfers - everywhere I leave a digital trail. In real time they scan my digital communications for key words such as "bomb," "attack," or anything else that they deem to be a trigger. They also watch to see if I am sending money to suspicious organizations, or have made unusually large cash withdrawals or deposits.

I am a computer-literate individual in a high-tech culture. As a result I leave a broad trail littered with digital breadcrumbs. The NSA bloodhounds gobble this up.

Of course, I don't know that I'm under surveillance. Neither do the courts. Only the NSA computers know, and the Bush Administration - "big brother" is watching me.

Next time, is this legal?
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Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. In a previous life he was one of the executive founders of Cisco Systems.
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