US looks at ways to prevent spying on its spying

Jan 27 2014, 11:03pm CST | by

AP Exclusive: US considers how to prevent spying on its searches of Americans' phone records

WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. government is looking at ways to prevent anyone from spying on its own surveillance of Americans' phone records.

As the Obama administration considers shifting the collection of those records from the National Security Agency to requiring that they be stored at phone companies or elsewhere, it's quietly funding research to prevent phone company employees or eavesdroppers from seeing whom the U.S. is spying on, The Associated Press has learned.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence has paid at least five research teams across the country to develop a system for high-volume, encrypted searches of electronic records kept outside the government's possession. The project is among several ideas that would allow the government to discontinue storing Americans' phone records, but still search them as needed.

Under the research, U.S. data mining would be shielded by secret coding that could conceal identifying details from outsiders and even the owners of the targeted databases, according to public documents obtained by The Associated Press and AP interviews with researchers, corporate executives and government officials.

In other developments Monday:

—The Justice Department and leading Internet companies agreed to a compromise with the government that would allow the firms to reveal how often they are ordered to turn over information about their customers in national security investigations. The deal with Google Inc., Microsoft Corp., Yahoo Inc., Facebook Inc. and LinkedIn Corp. would provide public information in general terms. Other technology companies were also expected to participate.

—Published reports said new documents leaked by former NSA contactor Edward Snowden suggest that popular mapping, gaming and social networking apps on smartphones can feed the NSA and Britain's GCHQ eavesdropping agency with personal data, including location information and details such as political affiliation or sexual orientation. The reports, published by The New York Times, the Guardian and ProPublica, said the intelligence agencies get routine access to data generated by apps such as the Angry Birds game franchise or the Google Maps navigation service.

—When the New York Times published a censored U.S. document on the smartphone surveillance program, computer experts said they were able to extract what appeared to be the name of an NSA employee, a Middle Eastern terror group the program was targeting and details about the types of computer files the NSA found useful. Since Snowden began leaking documents in June, his supporters have maintained they have been careful not to disclose any agent's identity or operational details that would compromise ongoing surveillance. The employee did not return phone or email messages from the AP. A DNI spokesman said they asked the Times to redact, or black out, the material. A Times spokeswoman blamed a "production error" and said the section was redacted.

—NBC News reported that British cyber spies demonstrated a pilot program to their U.S. partners in 2012 in which they were able to monitor YouTube in real time and collect addresses from the billions of videos watched daily, as well as some user information, for analysis. At the time the documents were printed, they were also able to spy on Facebook and Twitter. The network said the monitoring program was called "Squeaky Dolphin."

Under pressure, the administration has provided only vague descriptions about changes it is considering to the NSA's daily collection and storage of Americans' phone records, which are presently kept in NSA databanks. To resolve legal, privacy and civil liberties concerns, President Barack Obama this month ordered the attorney general and senior intelligence officials to recommend changes by March 28 that would allow the U.S. to identify suspected terrorists' phone calls without the government holding the phone records itself.

One federal review panel urged Obama to order phone companies or an unspecified third party to store the records; another panel said collecting the phone records was illegal and ineffective and urged Obama to abandon the program entirely.

Internal documents describing the Security and Privacy Assurance Research project do not cite the NSA or its phone surveillance program. But if the project were to prove successful, its encrypted search technology could pave the way for the government to shift storage of the records from NSA computers to either phone companies or a third-party organization.

A DNI spokesman, Michael Birmingham, confirmed that the research was relevant to the NSA's phone records program. He cited "interest throughout the intelligence community" but cautioned that it may be some time before the technology is used.

The intelligence director's office is by law exempt from disclosing detailed budget figures, so it's unclear how much money the government has spent on the SPAR project, which is overseen by the DNI's Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity office. Birmingham said the research is aimed for use in a "situation where a large sensitive data set is held by one party which another seeks to query, preserving privacy and enforcing access policies."

A Columbia University computer sciences expert who heads one of the DNI-funded teams, Steven M. Bellovin, estimates the government could start conducting encrypted searches within the next year or two.

"If the NSA wanted to deploy something like this it would take one to two years to get the hardware and software in place to start collecting data this way either from phone companies or whatever other entity they decide on," said Bellovin, who is also a former chief technologist for the Federal Trade Commission.

The NSA's surveillance program collects millions of Americans' daily calling records into a central agency database. When the agency wants to review telephone traffic associated with a suspected terrorist — the agency made 300 such queries in 2012 — it then searches that data bank and retrieves matching calling records and stores them separately for further analysis.

Using a "three-hop" method that allows the NSA to pull in records from three widening tiers of phone contacts, the agency could collect the phone records of up to 2.5 million Americans during each single query. Obama this month imposed a limit of "two hops," or scrutinizing phone calls that are two steps removed from a number associated with a terrorist organization, instead of the current three.

An encrypted search system would permit the NSA to shift storage of phone records to either phone providers or a third party, and conduct secure searches remotely through their databases. The coding could shield both the extracted metadata and identities of those conducting the searches, Bellovin said. The government could use encrypted searches to ensure its analysts were not leaking information or abusing anyone's privacy during their data searches. And the technique could also be used by the NSA to securely search out and retrieve Internet metadata, such as emails and other electronic records.

Some computer science experts are less sanguine about the prospects for encrypted search techniques. Searches could bog down because of the encryption computations needed, said Daniel Weitzner, principal research scientist at MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and former deputy U.S. chief technology officer for the Obama administration.

"There's no silver bullet that guarantees the intelligence community will only have access to the records they're supposed to have access to," Weitzner said. "We also need oversight of the actual use of the data."

Intelligence officials worry that phone records stored outside the government could take longer to search and could be vulnerable to hackers or other security threats. The former NSA deputy director, John Inglis, told Congress last year that privacy — both for the agency and for Americans' whose records were collected — is a prime consideration in the agency's preference to store the phone data itself.

The encrypted search techniques could make it more difficult for hackers to access the phone records and could prevent phone companies from knowing which records the government was searching.

"It would remove one of the big objections to having the phone companies hold the data," Bellovin said.

Similar research is underway by researchers at University of California at Irvine; a group from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Texas at Austin; another group from MIT, Yale and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute; and a fourth from Stealth Software Technologies, a Los Angeles-based technology company.

Source: AP Business

 
 

Don't miss ...

 

<a href="/latest_stories/all/all/31" rel="author">Associated Press</a>
The Associated Press (AP) is one of the largest and most trusted sources of independent newsgathering, supplying a steady stream of news to its members, international subscribers and commercial customers.

 

blog comments powered by Disqus

Latest stories

1.1 million HIV infections in children prevented: UNICEF
United Nations, Nov 29 (IANS) An estimated 1.1 million human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infections among children under the age of 15 have been prevented between 2005 and 2013.
 
 
Countries along Silk Road discuss co-operation
Bishkek, Nov 29 (IANS) Governmental representatives and experts from more than 10 countries exchanged their practical views in the international conference on "Common Development and Prosperity of the States along the Silk Road" held in the capital city of Kyrgyzstan.
 
 
Albania opens Communist-era nuclear bunker to public
Tirana, Nov 29 (IANS/EFE) The Albanian government has opened to the public the country's biggest Communist-era nuclear bunker, a secret symbol of the 40-year Cold War and the extravagances of the Communist regime.
 
 
Alleged flu vaccine-related deaths spark fears in Italy
Rome, Nov 29 (IANS) At least nine people were reported to have died in Italy for reasons allegedly linked to a flu vaccine which has been suspended by the Italian competent authority for drugs AIFA, media reported Friday.
 
 
 

Latest from the Network

Abigail Breslin slams ex Michael Clifford
Abigail Breslin has slammed her ex, Michael Clifford. The 'My Sister's Keeper' actress went on a date with the 5 Seconds of Summer guitarist last year but it seems as though it didn't end well after she released a song...
Read more on Celebrity Balla
 
Kevin Bacon to sizzle in Jungle
Kevin Bacon is to star in 'Jungle'. The 56-year-old actor will appear in the survival drama, which is based on the true story of Yossi Ghinsberg, an adventurer who found himself lost in the Amazon rainforest for three...
Read more on Movie Balla
 
Mickey Rourke to return to boxing at 62
Mickey Rourke will return to boxing aged 62. The actor will come out of retirement and step into the ring tonight (11.28.14) for the first time in 20 years as he competes against 29-year-old Elliot Seymour. He said: ''...
Read more on Celebrity Balla
 
Kristen Stewart: Actors are isolated
Kristen Stewart claims actors become ''isolated'' because of their fame. The 24-year-old actress has become one of the biggest movie stars in the world following her portrayal of Bella Swan in the 'Twilight' franchise...
Read more on Celebrity Balla
 
Burt Reynolds to sell memorabilia
Burt Reynolds is selling over 600 personal items to stave off bankruptcy. The 78-year-old Hollywood star is reportedly struggling financially so will see awards, cars and costumes go under the hammer in Las Vegas next...
Read more on Celebrity Balla
 
Eddie Redmayne's fear of failure
Eddie Redmayne has a fear of failure. The 'Theory of Everything' star has admitted that like fellow actor, Rachel Weisz, he worries about ever getting hired again. He said: ''I was reading an interview with Rachel Weisz...
Read more on Celebrity Balla
 
Where to Find Black Friday Car Deals
The Black Friday Car Sales events have gained traction over the past couple of years. This year several major brands ran nation-wide commercials announcing their Car Black Friday deals. In the beginning it was creative...
Read more on Auto Balla
 
Indian Aces win inaugural IPTL tie
Manila, Nov 28 (IANS) The much-awaited inaugural International Premier Tennis League (IPTL) got off to a flying start with the Indian Aces notching an impressive 26-16 first victory against the Singapore Slammers at...
Read more on Sport Balla
 
Australian navy's largest ship commissioned
Canberra, Nov 28 (IANS) HMAS Canberra, a 27,000-tonne landing helicopter dock (LHD), was commissioned Friday, providing the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) with one of the world's most capable and sophisticated amphibious...
Read more on Politics Balla
 
Sindhu, Prannoy enter Macau Open semis
Macau, Nov 28 (IANS) Indian shuttlers P.V. Sindhu and H.S. Prannoy came out with contrasting wins to enter their respective semi-finals at the $120,000 Macau Open Grand Prix Gold here Friday. While defending champion...
Read more on Sport Balla