NSA pays a visit to Silicon Valley

The Times reports on the NSA's recent visit to Silicon Valley, where some of America's best spying technology is invented and manufactured.

The Times' John Markoff reported over the weekend that more shoes are dropping regarding the the government's data-mining operations. Earlier, the Christian Science Monitor had reported on the Dept. of Homeland Security's ADVISE program, which is attempting to use datamining techniques to identify and analyze Internet traffic patterns before having human analysts put time into tracking down leads.

Now Markoff reports that NSA paid one of their regular visits to Silicon Valley. The piece underscores the importance of private sector innovation to intel and defense agencies.

[I]ntelligence agencies, hardly newcomers to data mining, are using new technologies to take the practice to another level.

But by fundamentally changing the nature of surveillance, high-tech data mining raises privacy concerns that are only beginning to be debated widely. That is because to find illicit activities it is necessary to turn loose software sentinels to examine all digital behavior whether it is innocent or not.

"The theory is that the automated tool that is conducting the search is not violating the law," said Mark D. Rasch, the former head of computer-crime investigations for the Justice Department and now the senior vice president of Solutionary, a computer security company. But "anytime a tool or a human is looking at the content of your communication, it invades your privacy."

Among the private companies helping out are i2, makers of Analyst's Notebook, a crime investigation "spreadsheet" and visualization tool; Virage, a Silicon Valley company that sells a voice transcription product useful for captioning television programs and transcribing phone conversations, and of course AT&T, which has 1.92 trillion phone records.

 

A former AT&T official who had detailed knowledge of the call-record database said the Daytona system takes great care to make certain that anyone using the database — whether AT&T employee or law enforcement official with a subpoena — sees only information he or she is authorized to see, and that an audit trail keeps track of all users. Such information is frequently used to build models of suspects' social networks.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was discussing sensitive corporate matters, said every telephone call generated a record: number called, time of call, duration of call, billing category and other details. While the database does not contain such billing data as names, addresses and credit card numbers, those records are in a linked database that can be tapped by authorized users.