Most people know by now about the surveillance abuses perpetrated by the NSA earlier this century, but a new book about Edward Snowden suggests that the metadata collection programs introduced to us through previous whistleblowers and disclosures are part of a “live, ever-updating social graph of the US” that is ongoing and far vaster than we previously imagined.
The revelations come from journalist Barton Gellman, who described the content of his new book Dark Mirror: Edward Snowden and the American Surveillance State for Wired. The article, entitled “Inside the NSA’s Secret Tool for Mapping Your Social Network,” catalogs Gellman’s attempts to reveal more details about the programs Snowden first disclosed to the world.
What he found shocked him and, he says, represents an ongoing existential threat to American citizens.
Gellman says that originally he wanted to understand more about the logistics of the NSA phone records. The Snowden archive hints at but does not explain the details of the agency’s project pipelines.
The main thoroughfare of data collection, Stellarwind, was a domestic surveillance program launched by Vice President Dick Cheney only weeks after 9/11. He mandated that all operatives and subordinates conceal the program from FISA Court judges and Congress, stamping it with the most covert of government classifications, ECI, “exceptionally controlled information.”
Stellarwind facilitated Mainway, the NSA’s prized social network mapping tool which conscripted telephone data companies like AT&T and Verizon into secretive–and financially lucrative–data collection contracts negotiated by Special Source Operations.
But even this was just the tip of the iceberg.
The Mainway program codified two important but (until now) obfuscated surveillance and data mining objectives: contact chaining and precomputation.
While the NSA long maintained that their surveillance programs merely stored untraced metadata that could help investigate the activities of known terrorist operatives, we now know that the agency was actively leveraging and exploiting the data to build an almost mind-bogglingly complex, next-generation social graph. As described by Gellman, this tool combined the concepts of “six degrees of separation” (or six degrees of Kevin Bacon, if you prefer) and a pre-COVID19 model of contact tracing.
Termed contact chaining and first deployed during the manhunt and investigation of Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, a new suite of software tools used the NSA’s intercepted communications (read, our personal information), including voice, video, email and chat text, attachments, pager messages, etc. to build a cutting-edge form of data analysis that can algorithmically parse data records to illustrate indirect relationships between any and all intelligence assets (read, us).
According to Gellman, Mainway turned into “the queen of metadata, foreign and domestic, designed to find patterns that content did not reveal…[and] identify, track, store, manipulate and update relationships” to create a global graph, an integrated graphical map, representing the “movements and communications” of virtually everyone on Earth.
Named “the Big Awesome Graph,” or “the BAG” for short, this tool was the principal data harvesting tool in the umbrella directive of “Large Access Exploitation.” It “mapped the call records as “nodes” and “edges” on a grid so large that the human mind, unaided, could not encompass it.”
The NSA’s Mainway program sought to use its newly and somewhat hastily assembled software to continuously contact chain profiles on all global citizens. The FBI commandeered over a billion new records each day from the telephone companies and the NSA ingested that info to “get a head start on everyone.”
Termed precomputation, the idea was and is to create a “constant, complex…7×24…live, ever-updating social graph,” called Graph-in-Memory, of every US citizen and a large number of non-citizens and international citizens.
“All kinds of secrets - social, medical, political, professional - were precomputed, 24/7…a database that was preconfigured to map anyone’s life at the touch of a button.”
He maintains that only 22 top officials had the authority to order a so-called contact chain. However, the dangers of such power abound.
In its post-911 sprint to “to dominate the global communications infrastructure,” the NSA opened a veritable Pandora’s box, whereby “governments at all levels [may use] the power of the state most heavy-handedly, sometimes illegally, to monitor communities disadvantaged by poverty, race, religion, ethnicity, and immigration status.”
Gellman observes that “nearly anyone in the developed world can be linked to at least one fact in a computer database that an adversary could use for blackmail, discrimination, harassment, or financial or identity theft.”
“The latent power of new inventions,” Gellman writes, “no matter how repellent at first, does not lie forever dormant in government armories.”
In other words, if you’re worried about contact tracing in the age of Covid-19, worry no more: that ship has long sailed.