"Skynet" is real, and it could flag you as a terrorist

If you visit airports or swap SIM cards often, you might be flagged by "Skynet."

A scene from "Terminator." (Screenshot: Warner Bros. via CNET/CBS Interactive)

It may not be quite the self-aware computer network that takes over millions of computers and machines, but "Skynet" is real.

Documents published by The Intercept, leaked by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, confirm that the Skynet program exists -- at least in name only. Its name comes from the intelligent computer defense system in the "Terminator" films, which later destroys most of humanity in a nuclear apocalypse.

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Just a few minutes after the first NSA leak was published, the phones of US lawmakers began to buzz, hours before most of America would find out over their morning coffee.

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The National Security Agency program analyzes location and metadata from phone records to detect potentially suspicious patterns, according to the publication. In one example, it was used to identify people that act as couriers between al-Qaeda leadership. (This may have been the program that helped identify Osama bin Laden's courier, leading to his targeted killing in Pakistan by US forces in 2011.)

According to one of the documents, it uses "behavior-based analytics," such as low-use phones that only take incoming calls, SIM card or handset swapping, or frequent disconnections from the phone network (such as powering down cellphones). Also, repeated trips mapped out by location data, including visits to other countries or airports, can flag a person as being suspicious -- or a potential terrorist.

More than 55 million cell records collected from major Pakistani telecom companies were fed into the Skynet system to determine targets of interest, the document said.

But questions remain around why the program flagged a prominent Al Jazeera journalist as a "member" of al-Qaeda. It's probably not a surprise that the system alerted on Ahmad Muaffaq Zaidan, a Syrian national, based on his frequent travel between Afghanistan and Pakistan. But the fact that it identified him as a member of a terrorist group is a mystery, as well as a great concern.

Zaidan "absolutely" denied that he is a member of al-Qaeda, and criticized the US government's "attempt at using questionable techniques to target our journalists."

We reached out to the NSA to see why it used the name, but didn't hear back at the time of writing.

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