TCS Daily

Echelon on Uppers

By Greg Buete - November 22, 2002 12:00 AM

Recently the most popular web site on the Internet boldly displayed a picture of the dollar bill all-knowing Pyramid thingie linked to a New York Times opinion piece warning of horrors to come via DARPA.

In case you don't know, DARPA stands for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. It was established by the Department of Defense in response to the Soviet Sputnik launch and is charged with keeping U.S. technology ahead of our enemies. Among other projects, DARPA is currently developing a $200 million (annually) computer system to survey information on a global level. The DARPA computer, developed by John Poindexter and operated under the Information Awareness Office, will sift through government and commercial databases around the world to find trends and patterns that might help locate terrorists, prevent espionage and strengthen law enforcement.

It will also forward all of your personal information to the Illuminati. Just kidding, although some would have you believe that. One must wonder what the heck the Bushies were thinking bringing a controversial figure like Poindexter into the fold, and while we're at it why someone can't come up with less Orwellian naming schemes than the Information Awareness Office - the IAO emblem is just freaky - or Fatherland-ish Department of Homeland Security.

Regardless, it seems that in this age we're going to have to confront technological advancements sooner than later. Now, I'm not going to argue that DARPA's new computer system, once complete and without safeguards, couldn't be abused. However, the proper response to new technological development, even those pursued by the government, is not just to read a Times op/ed, add the word "Darth" before every Bushie's last name, and scream "stop!" The technology is here. It's up to us to develop a code for its use that protects our liberty, too.

The fundamental problem with the civil libertarian knee-jerk aversion to technological advancements is that we've already had similar technologies in place for decades and we've yet to become some dictatorial empire with a meaningless legislature. We're not even close, no matter what the guy obsessed with the Council on Foreign Relations tells you.

Remember TIPS? It was the last ominous flavor of the month for the Times. Under the TIPS system, we were told, the government would create an army of spies using postal workers, truck drivers and cable repairpersons.

It was argued that with TIPS a cable repairperson could enter your home on a routine install, spot some suspicious literature - or rows of pipe bombs adjacent pictures of Congressional leaders - and turn you into the TIPSters. But through all the hoopla everyone seemed to forget that under the same scenario the repairperson could pick up a high-tech book - called the "yellow pages" - and find the number for the FBI or a dozen other federal agencies and do the same. Likewise, with or without TIPS a postal carrier or average truck driver could call the FBI and report anything he deemed suspicious. If abused, they would face charges, as they would have under TIPS. Indeed, if there was an argument against TIPS it was one of cost effectiveness. Why do we need a new government program when trucker Ron Lantz effectively reported to authorities the location of snipers John Muhammad and Lee Malvo without TIPS?

But as relevant issues were ignored with TIPS, so, too, might we do the same with DARPA's database. Now, the people at Defense will tell you that this tool is necessary to help them find terrorists. One can understand the pressure they're under. On a daily basis they and the administration are criticized for not finding Osama bin Laden while at the same time the public may refuse to give them the tools they believe will help them in the fight. We must meet in the middle.

We don't have all the details of DARPA's computer system, but we can draw some parallels to a similar system with a set of safeguards that the administration could model the DARPA computer after. This technology and the issues that surround them are not unprecedented. Since the late 1960s, the National Security Agency has been operating a signal interception system called Echelon, which sifts through vast amounts of signal communications: telephone, cellular phone, ATM transfers, fax, Email, and even baby monitors. Located in Menwith Hill Station of Northern England, Echelon's giant dishes download satellite communications from around the globe. The raw data is sent to NSA headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland, where battalions of computers scan millions of transmissions word by word, which are stored in a database capable of holding 5 trillion pages of text. Echelon's central computers are programmed to pick up on numbers, words and phrases, both complex and simple - such as the word "bomb." There, I was just intercepted. Although the success rate is not high Echelon can even analyze voiceprints in order to determine the identity of the speaker.

However, while Echelon covers the globe it doesn't mean that it collects every signal. There are only so many signals that Echelon can take in and analysts will never see the vast majority of the intercepts. To help them evaluate, the NSA team must prioritize searches and program complicated criteria for queries. According to former NSA director William Studeman, on average, for every million intercepts collected by one collection system every half hour, all but 6500 are tossed, and then only 1000 of that million meet criteria to be forwarded. From that 1000 an analyst will take 10 intercepts to create one report.

Other federal departments, such as State, can send NSA a list of keywords, names, and numbers to be passed on through Echelon. Similar to an Internet search engine, a program called Dictionary searches for those list characters. The Dictionary operators will pull a list of hits that met all their preprogrammed criteria. Other analysts will compile the hits into a report. Compiled reports, never the raw intercepts, are then sent back to the original requestor.

The amount of information seems overwhelming, but Echelon has been successful. Among other secret things, the CIA used the NSA listening device to track Abu Ali until they could annihilate him with a missile strike. Likewise by targeting his cellular phone the NSA helped authorities capture Ramzi Binalshibh. In the past Echelon has been attributed with the capture of Carlos the Jackal, Pablo Escobar, and a pair of Libyans who bombed Pan Am FLT 103

Author James Bamford has written extensively on the NSA procedures and Echelon. Though many consider Echelon a vulgar infringement of civil liberties, he believes it is not so, although he argues that its civil protections could use improving. In Bamford's Body of Secrets he exposes many safeguards used to keep Echelon in check. It is true that Echelon collects mass amounts of information without a court order. But Bamford, a defender of civil liberties, wrote that concerns of Echelon abuses are "overrated," while offering this caveat:

Based on everything I know about the agency, and countless conversations with current and former NSA personnel, I am certain that the NSA is not overstepping its mandate. But that doesn't mean it won't.

Well, the same could be said of your local police force, but we shouldn't scrap them either. There are rules that exist to prevent the NSA from overstepping its mandate.

The NSA must remove a U.S. citizen's (or even resident alien's) name or domestic company name from its intercepts. Information regarding U.S. citizens or resident aliens is stored for only one year. When the NSA intercepts communication between a U.S. citizen and a foreign target, the domestic side of the intercept must be downplayed, and the citizen is given a generic name or title. Other agencies may only learn the name by issuing a special request with specific information and reason based on understanding foreign intelligence. This report is never mass disseminated to an agency, just to requesting individuals. As with the CIA, when a foreign agent enters the U.S., the NSA must hand the case over to the FBI. To specifically intercept the communication of a U.S. citizen or resident alien, the NSA must acquire a warrant like any other agency that operates under Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). A judge must find probable cause that the citizen is acting in cooperation with a foreign power.

As in any system, abuses are possible. As Bamford says, surveillance laws written 25 years ago should be updated so that technology and liberty may coexist. The DARPA database could be adapted so that updated FISA rules apply as they do with NSA activities. But, we must wonder about cost effectiveness.

In 1999 Bamford said, "Without Sigint [signals intelligence], Washington would be left in the dark. No other intelligence source - human, military, diplomatic, photo, Israeli - provided the answers produced by the Echelon system." Having said that, Echelon didn't stop September 11. And as TIPS was redundant, will the DARPA's computer be as well? Can a DARPA system help find Osama bin Laden? Or, would this money be better spent developing spies and human intelligence? After all, $200 million a year goes a long way in Pakistan.

These are the questions that are relevant. But we should not, even in the defense of civil liberties, allow a rush to judgment to prevent a technology that could help us prevent terrorist acts.



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