NSA patent reveals global monitoring technology

Could improve governments' ability to instantly pinpoint what's being said in phone conversations anywhere in the world

The US National Security Agency (NSA) has patented new phone tapping technology that could revolutionise surveillance of global telephone networks.

The technology allows telephone conversations in any language to be monitored according to assigned meaning rather than key words for the first time ever. That is, the technology is designed to pinpoint the topic of a conversation even if conventional keywords aren't used. The technology employed by the US and UK government to monitor could in fact be far superior to this, as the patent was actually applied for in 15 April, 1997.

The NSA already operates surveillance of international communications out of two military bases in Europe; Bad Ailing in Germany and Menwith Hill in the UK.

Patent number 5,937,422 describes the NSA technology as, "A method of automatically generating a topical description of text by receiving the text containing input words." The patent also mentions "machine transcription" which means the process of converting speech into text. Although some technology of this nature is already commercially available, it is not thought to be capable of converting speech from an unknown source. The patent therefore seems to be a new development in this area as well.

According to government security expert Ian Johnston-Bryden this represents an important development in the technology of surveillance. "The basic principles of intelligence gathering have not changed, just the technology," he says. "Technology now exists to monitor virtually every form of communication in the world in real time. The problem is how to find nuggets of gold in that information."

According to Yaman Akdeniz director of Cyber Rights & Cyber Liberties, anyone who thinks this is just a US issue is sorely mistaken. He says, "I don't know what sort of agreement the NSA has with British counterparts but they've got Menwith Hill and I'm sure they use American bases and technology."

Director of Privacy International, Simon Davies is keen to make people aware that, innovative as this technology may be, it does not bode well for standards of individual privacy. "I've said for sometime that government agencies must already be using context analysing technology. I think that this is just the latest in a series of similar patents that can probably be traced back to the NSA. People aren't aware of content matching technology and it's hugely dangerous for human rights activists, political dissident and other agents of change."

Davies also notes that pattern-matching technology would completely bypass something such as Jam Echelon Day . Participants in this event attempted to clog up the semi-mythical "Echelon" global monitoring machine with thousands of emails containing sensitive key words.

Davies goes on to say, "That was a very well-meaning but ill-conceived idea. In reality such messages would be neutralised by pattern matching technology."

Johnston-Bryden, however, also makes the point that perhaps the most significant thing about this patent is that some commercial application is likely to result from it. He says: "You don't go and apply for a patent for something you're then going to put on a top-secret jet. The most likely outcome is that someone will sometime soon produce a product based on this work."

Take me to the Surveillance special.