PBS : Cringley: The Falafel Connection

Thursday, January 26, 2006

The Falafel Connection

All Those NSA Wiretaps Are Just a Friendster in Disguise

By Robert X. Cringely | January 26, 2006

We'll get back to wiretapping in a moment, but first there's the obvious story this week of Disney buying Pixar, which nobody but me seems to think is about estate planning for Steve Jobs.

The guy had 80 percent of his wealth tied-up in Pixar. That kind of holding is very difficult to sell on the open market. A $4 billion sell order? I don't think so. Remember this is someone who less than two years ago had a form of pancreatic cancer that has only a 50 percent five-year survival rate. I'm not saying Jobs is going to die, but I AM saying that he is in a position where he has to think about these things and his financial position at Pixar was untenable for his family, and left him too exposed if Cars turns out to be a lemon.

So the sale to Disney gives Jobs a smaller piece of a bigger pie and therefore much easier liquidity. But it also gives him the chance to nag Disney into the 21st century, as I am sure he will. Strong minority shareholders tend to clash with management (look at Ross Perot with General Motors and Ted Turner with Time-Warner), and Jobs will do the same with Disney. He'll push to end Disney's partnership with Microsoft, to bring Disney into the Apple-Intel alliance, and potentially try for some partnership with Sony, too. It's the start of a grand amalgamation based around a combination of content, technology, and networking, and I wouldn't at all be surprised to see it end as a single huge company five years from now with Jobs at the helm.

Just as Gil Amelio should have at Apple, Robert Iger from Disney had better be looking over his shoulder.

Now back to wiretapping. After last week's column, a number of readers wrote to explain that the National Security Agency's problem with complying with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) had to do with the sheer volume of wiretaps involved, which they guessed numbers in the millions or billions. Evidently, these worried readers think, the NSA has been long listening-in to ALL of our calls, and thought that might not go down well with the secret court that issues FISA warrants.

I don't think so.

The NSA has a very advanced program called Echelon for monitoring radio communication around the world, and probably intercepts a lot of phone calls that way, but for FISA-type wiretaps they tend to use the same outsourcing firms the phone companies use, and these generally tiny outfits can only handle a few thousand taps per year each.

By the way, if you are wondering whether YOUR phone could be easily tapped, just check to see if your phone company offers three-way dialing, because that's the feature we're talking about. If you can get it, they can get you. And if you are wondering whether VoIP service can't be tapped, the answer is both yes and no. For the moment, SIP services like Skype can't be tapped but that will change soon. And if you are a Vonage or Packet8 user, well they already have your number.

Here's what is most likely going on with the NSA and FISA from a guy who used to work for the NSA:

"What I think is going on here is that they're using social network analysis. They get some numbers or endpoints of interest, and start out with classical traffic analysis, which can all be done (as I think you pointed out) with pen registers or their moral equivalent. They look for other numbers, and follow the graph of connections by transitivity.

"It's well known that any graph of associations in the real world tends to generate cliques, and that the clique size for a social group of any sort tends to actually be fairly small. This is the 'six degrees of Kevin Bacon' effect. But in a social network, there will also be people with many edges coming to them, and many paths in the transitive closure of the graph of their relationships, and those people are often 'centers.'

"In fact, just that sort of analysis was done -- after the fact -- of the 9/11 hijackers (in this week's links).

"I would guess that the SNA is used to identify people of interest -- although there would be some false positives, like if they all rented apartments from the same rental management firm, or all ordered from the same we-deliver falafel place. But someone who shows up in the transitive network of a lot of calls from overseas, and is also a high edge-count in the SNA graph, is definitely someone to be interested in. I wouldn't be at all surprised if that's when they apply for a FISA warrant and start actually intercepting."

So what we have the NSA doing is probably data mining, calling records in order to identify the people they want to order intercepts on. They are doing it without warrants because they like being sneaky, don't think they could get past the FISA court a warrant for 100 million calling records, and because the FISA law from 1978 probably doesn't distinguish between a pen-trap and an intercept.

If that's really the case, this doesn't sound quite as bad as we've feared. I feel better thinking that they are culling calling records rather than listening-in to my conversations. And it makes a lot more sense, from a pure technical capability standpoint.

So why couldn't they just tell us? Why couldn't they have simply amended the FISA law to take such activities into account? Because they like to be sneaky, tend to distrust even the people who pay them (that's us), and because they for some reason think that the bad guys won't figure this out for themselves.


This is far from the first instance of such unartful phone tapping, as my friend Mike Class reports from Chicago. Though I didn't know it until we'd been e-mailing back and forth for years, Mike is the Socius to the Provincial -- effectively the number two Jesuit in the Windy City:

"Here's one more tidbit on wire-taps: They get you free phone service! The feds tapped the phone of the Sisters of Mercy in Washington D.C. because of some anti-war stance or something they took in the 1980s. The good sisters noticed some kind of clicking on the phone at times, and finally decided that someone must have tapped into their phone. Their solution: Don't pay the bill so the phone company will have to shut off the phone. The phone never went dead, and they quit sending them bills! The Feds wouldn't let Ma Bell shut them down, and probably began paying the bills. The sisters talked long and free with their friends across the country!"

Albany Times-Union : Suspects raise domestic spy issue

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Suspects raise domestic spy issue

2 Albany Muslim men accused in FBI sting seek information

By BRENDAN LYONS, Staff writer | January 5, 2006

ALBANY -- The first formal challenge of a controversial national spying program has been raised in the case of two Albany men who were ensnared last year in an FBI counterterrorism sting.

Attorneys for the Muslim men, Yassin Aref and Mohammed Hossain, recently filed motions in U.S. District Court asking the government to disclose whether the pair were subjected to the domestic surveillance measures, which triggered a national debate when the activity was first exposed last month in a report by The New York Times.

The National Security Agency's domestic surveillance program relied on a secret directive issued by President Bush more than three years ago, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, that allowed the cryptic NSA to circumvent court-authorized wiretaps in the hastened hunt for terrorists here and abroad. The Bush administration has defended the practice, contending it was a matter of national security, and not unlawful, to sift through thousands of phone calls and e-mails without a warrant or court order.

Bush said last week that the measures, implemented to monitor conversations between Americans and terror suspects abroad, are "consistent with my constitutional responsibilities and authorities."

But the Albany investigation is a sting case, which means the government will likely be compelled at trial to show the men were predisposed to take part in a terrorism plot without any urging from an FBI informant. However, if it turns out they were targeted because of information secretly gleaned from their e-mails or telephone calls, the entire case could be jeopardized if its foundation was based on an unlawful act, according to their attorneys.

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the FBI reshaped its mission to focus on counterterrorism. But many of their sting cases have drawn controversy.

The Albany-based sting began in July 2003 when the FBI sent an undercover informant, a Pakistani immigrant and Muslim, into Hossain's pizza shop to lure the men into a plot to make money from the sale of missile launchers to terrorists.

Federal authorities have admitted Aref was the "ultimate target" of their lengthy operation. Aref's name, phone number and Albany address were found in a notebook recovered from a bombed-out Iraqi encampment -- about two months before the sting began -- that the government contends was occupied by "terrorists."

It's not clear when the FBI learned of the notebook entry or if it triggered the sting. His lawyer said it's possible Aref was being monitored before the government collected any information tying him to terrorist figures.

Hossain's and Aref's confidential criminal history reports, which prosecutors have turned over to their lawyers, show no arrests outside of their Aug. 5, 2004, arrests in the sting case.

However, their criminal history reports, which are normally not public, refer to a U.S. attorney general's directive on April 11, 2002, regarding "known or suspected terrorists."

It's not clear why the entry is listed in their criminal history reports.

Assistant U.S. Attorney William Pericak, who is prosecuting the case, declined comment. Hossain's attorney, Kevin Luibrand, and Aref's attorney, Terence L. Kindlon, also declined to discuss their motions, citing judge's orders not to discus the case.

The 2002 directive from former Attorney General John Ashcroft ordered the FBI, the newly formed Foreign Terrorist Tracking Task Force and other federal agencies to begin coordinating their activities to fight terrorism. Ashcroft's memo also noted an Oct. 30, 2001, directive from Bush in which the President ordered that the task force should have access to electronic surveillance and other intelligence information "to keep foreign terrorists and their supporters out of the United States."

Even if Aref and Hossain were secretly monitored by the NSA, it's not clear whether their attorneys, or, the public, will ever know. So far, U.S. District Judge Thomas J. McAvoy, who is presiding over their case, has not granted any requests by defense attorneys for access to classified information gathered by the government.

Much of the material has been reviewed by McAvoy under seal, and not turned over to the defense teams.

The new request for access to any NSA surveillance records, if they exist, is scheduled to be addressed at a status conference slated for Monday in U.S. District Court in Albany.

Aref and Hossain were arrested last year on a 19-count indictment charging them with money laundering in connection with a plot to sell grenade launchers to terrorists. The government has since added more charges, including allegations the men conspired to provide material support to a Pakistani terrorist group, although the support was in the form of taking part in the FBI sting. There was never any real terrorist plot.

Hossain, a Bangladeshi immigrant who has lived in Albany for more than two decades, claims he was lured into the plot by an overzealous FBI informant.

Aref, 35, is an Iraqi-born religious scholar who was hired as imam at the Masjid As Salam mosque on Central Avenue soon after he arrived in the United States seven years ago. Aref and Hossain had been free on bond while their case is pending, but Aref's freedom was revoked by a federal judge on Sept. 30 when federal prosecutors filed a superseding indictment that contained allegations of Aref's past ties to terrorist organizations.

The case is expected to go to trial in the coming months.