Spying on people's emails, phone calls . . . and money

Spying on people's emails, phone calls . . . and money

Summary: Most people aren't too concerned about having their phone records or emails monitored. Spying on their money is different.

TOPICS: E-Commerce

There's a saying in journalism, that if you want to get to the truth of a story, "follow the money."

The flow of money says much more about the truth of any action in this world than anything else.  Snooping on emails, phone calls, Facebook friend networks, whatever else, pales in comparison to the intelligence gained in knowing the money trail.

Money transforms intent into action.

Brute-force spying

The NSA and its foreign counterparts, are collecting vast databases filled with personal data from wherever they can harvest it, which is essentially from the Internet traffic that crosses between the world's servers. Their goal is to identify terrorist and criminal groups intending to harm their citizens.

They face a data mining nightmare. They need to identify potentially nefarious patterns of connections between individuals and predict their intent to do harm. Big business has trouble enough predicting a person's intent to buy a washing machine — imagine the task that spy agencies face.

Fortunately for them, the same Moore's Law that provides us with ever cheaper and better smart phones and computers, delivers digital systems that are cheaper and more powerful on an exponential scale. But a brute force approach to finding the bent needles in the haystack cannot hope to be as efficient as focusing on signals of intent.

"Put your money where your mouth is," and "Money makes the world go around," are popular sayings because they are true observations about money and action. 

If it's possible for the spy agencies to collect the masses of personal data that we know they collect, why would't it be possible for them to hack into global financial networks, and individual banks?

Silicon Valley's war on cash…

Cash is anonymous but it's difficult to use without attracting attention. And the future of cash is under pressure from numerous Silicon Valley startups promoting "frictionless" financial transactions of all sorts. What's good for commerce is good for spies because anything digital leaves a trail.

Bitcoin is a digital technology that offers the anonymity of cash but it might not be quite as secure as it's portrayed. It could act as a signal to flag suspicious activities.

It's the same as people using one-time "burner" cell phones to mask their activities – calls made between phone numbers with no known users are a bright beacon amid an ocean of known numbers. [See Steve Gibson on Security Now 408.]

And what do we know about the origin of Bitcoin? Incredibly, very little. Its origin is as anonymous as the anonymity it promises.  

It appeared out of nowhere in 2008 from a "Satoshi Nakamoto," a pseudonym that's never been traced to any known person or group, which is as you'd expect from the developer of an untraceable digital currency.

What we do know about Bitcoin is that its an extremely sophisticated mathematical construct based on prime numbers. Prime numbers are essential to digital security, our most advanced encryption technologies wouldn't be possible without them.

What do we know about the NSA? It employs more mathematicians than Wall Street, and it knows more about encryption than any other organization on the planet.

Is Bitcoin an NSA construct designed to help focus its surveillance systems? Whatever its origin it does a great job in flagging activities that want to be hidden. 

Signals intelligence

What's clear is that "follow the money" has to be in the playbook of every spy agency. And it has to be far more detailed than the current systems monitoring tax evasion and money laundering. Because it's by far the quickest way to pinpoint suspicious networks of people and organizations.

Crunching through the Mother of Big Data being collected daily, to surface patterns of concern in phone calls and emails, is not a feasible strategy.

Even with the prodigious computing resources that the NSA possesses, data mining on such a scale is a poor way to generate actionable intelligence. But if you can overlay networks of financial connections, you can disregard the 99.99999999999999999% of the useless data that's masking what needs to be monitored.

People, especially in the US, will likely be far more upset about security agencies spying on their money than on their emails or phone records. People will happily talk about their healthcare with others but are extremely guarded about their finances. 

No one has yet come forward to whistleblow spy agencies snooping on personal financial transactions but there's really no need. Follow the dots… Follow the money is where you'll always find the truth of any story. 

Topic: E-Commerce

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  • Nice article

    You make a lot of sense. Interesting theory about Bitcoin. But in your second graf I think you mean "pales in comparison."
    none none
  • Nice article

    You make a lot of sense. Interesting theory about Bitcoin. But in your second graf I think you mean "pales in comparison."
    none none
  • Revenue source

    Has it dawned on anyone that the NSA can also do this with corporations and therefore have the ability to predict the stock market?
    • Flawed oversight

      I'm not accusing these agencies of being 'all bad' or even 'mostly bad', but when you have that level of security it is quite easy for compartmentalized groups with access to the data to splinter off and run their own operations. In fact the rest of the organization does not even need to be aware that the data collection even exists.
    • unfair play

      predict the stock market (follow the money: connect to the special provisions on insider trading for politicians), infiltrate companies networks to get a preview at products-to-come (ideally from competitors of US corporations, who have a lot of money to pay for "bits & pieces of information")... there are plenty of ways to recoup the investment.
      if an individual played this game, he'd be hunted for all possible "crimes". when a government does it in the name of fighting terrorism, no objection is allowed without manipulative accusations of treason... all to shift focus away from what's really going on: illegal (and unconstitutional) spying that treads on the rights of the world's citizens, elevating a minority to an all-knowing all-deciding "we know what's best for you"...
      ever wonder why a growing number of ppl are growing disaffected by the US' holier-than-thou attitude?
    • Revenue Not So Neutral Activities

      Has it downed on anyone that the number of intel agency - and congressional / white house - employees who make it to the "upper echelons" often amass large personal fortunes?

      With an ability to monitor communications between investors, inventors, speculators, corporate financiers and the like, is it any wonder?
  • Power in Government mentioned Hands Should Always be Suspect

    The likes of Hitler, Stalin and their ilk would have loved this technology, the salesmanship of the government its exercise of power to sell the people it is necessary to protect the people and worse of all, the complacency of the public in accepting it. Our society is agreeing and allowing the government to destroy the very document the people and States created to limit what powers the government had and protect the individual from the government's invasion into their life and personal affairs.

    The Declaration of Independence sets forth the right of the people to rise up when a government becomes abusive and intrusive and no longer represents what the people want.