An investigative journalist who helped expose the National Security Agency’s notorious phone-tracking surveillance program has described how it is significantly more extensive than previously thought.
Barton Gellman was one of three journalists with whom former NSA contractor Edward Snowden shared thousands of classified documents about US surveillance programs in 2013.
One of those documents revealed that the NSA was tracking phone calls made by Americans inside the US.
In an excerpt from his new book, Dark Mirror, Gellman lays out how the tool at the heart of the program works in unprecedented detail.
That tool, dubbed Mainway, secretly scoured billions of phone records a day for years, cultivating a database that was ‘preconfigured to map anyone’s life at the touch of a button’, Gellman writes.
The program was scaled back significantly in the wake of the Snowden leak, but a more restrained version is still in effect today.
Though the NSA insists that the database is only used to investigate terrorists, Gellman raises concerns about how easily it could be abused.
Investigative journalist Barton Gellman (pictured) helped expose the National Security Agency’s notorious phone-tracking surveillance program in 2013. In his new book, Dark Mirror, Gellman describes how the program was significantly more intrusive than previously thought
The surveillance program was first brought to light in June 2013, in an article Gellman published in The Washington Post.
‘The first accounts revealed only bare bones,’ he writes in his book.
‘If you placed a call, whether local or international, the NSA stored the number you dialed, as well as the date, time and duration of the call. It was domestic surveillance, plain and simple.
‘When the story broke, the NSA discounted the intrusion on privacy. The agency collected “only metadata,” it said, not the content of telephone calls. Only on rare occasions, it said, did it search the records for links among terrorists.
‘I decided to delve more deeply. The public debate was missing important information.’
Gellman first sought to understand what the program’s records looked like, and where they were housed.
In his book he recounts a conversation he had with Admiral Dennis Blair, the former director of national intelligence, at the Aspen Security Forum six weeks after Snowden’s first disclosure and three months after the Boston Marathon Bombing.
‘Blair assured me that the records were “stored”, untouched, until the next Boston bomber came along,’ he writes.
But Gellman wasn’t satisfied with that answer. He notes that the ‘mere creation of such a database, especially in secret, profoundly changed the balance of power between government and governed’.
‘Capability matters, always, regardless of whether it is used. An unfired gun is no less lethal before it is drawn. And in fact, in history, capabilities do not go unused in the long term,’ he writes.
‘By September of that year, it dawned on me that there were also concrete questions that I had not sufficiently explored. Where in the innards of the NSA did the phone records live? What happened to them there? The Snowden archive did not answer those questions directly, but there were clues.’
Through scouring the documents and speaking to internal NSA sources, Gellman learned that the records were being stored within Mainway, a surveillance tool developed immediately after the September 11, 2001, terror attacks.
Gellman was one of three journalists with whom former NSA contractor Edward Snowden (pictured) shared thousands of classified documents about US surveillance programs in 2013
Gellman describes the implications of the Mainway revelation as ‘startling’.
‘Mainway was queen of metadata, foreign and domestic, designed to find patterns that content did not reveal,’ he writes.
‘Beyond that, Mainway was a prototype for still more ambitious plans. Next-generation systems, their planners wrote, could amplify the power of surveillance by moving “from the more traditional analysis of what is collected to the analysis of what to collect”.
‘Patterns gleaned from call records would identify targets in email or location databases, and vice versa.
‘Metadata was the key to the NSA’s plan to “identify, track, store, manipulate and update relationships” across all forms of intercepted content.
‘An integrated map, presented graphically, would eventually allow the NSA to display nearly anyone’s movements and communications on a global scale.’
Mainway’s primary focus is contact chaining, which Gellman describes in basic terms as ‘a sophisticated form of analysis that looks for hidden, indirect relationships in very large data sets’.
‘Contact chaining began with a target telephone number, such as Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s, and progressively widened the lens to ask whom Tsarnaev’s contacts were talking to, and whom those people were talking to, and so on,’ he writes.
Gellman points out how intelligence officials long sought to justify the call records database with the following quote from former President George W Bush: ‘It seems like to me that if somebody is talking to al Qaeda, we want to know why.’
‘In fact, that was not at all the way the NSA used the call records,’ Gellman writes in response to that argument.
Gellman lays out his findings on the NSA’s phone-tracking program in his book Dark Mirror: Edward Snowden and the American Surveillance State (pictured)
‘The program was designed to find out whether, not why, US callers had some tie to a terrorist conspiracy—and to do so, it searched us all.
‘Working through the FBI, the NSA assembled a five-year inventory of phone calls from every account it could touch. Trillions of calls. Nothing like that was needed to find the numbers on a bad guy’s telephone bill.’
He goes on to explain how the NSA sought to get a ‘head start’ on investigating bad guys by pre-computing phone call data so it would be ready when needed.
‘You have to establish all those relationships, tag them, so that when you do launch the query you can quickly get them,’ Rick Ledgett, the former NSA deputy director, told Gellman years after he found the Mainway link.
‘Otherwise you’re taking like a month to scan through a gazillion-line phone bill.’
For five years, Mainway archived information on billions of phone calls per day, provided to the NSA by the FBI.
Trillions of data points representing each call were then condensed into a summary form that human analysts could grasp using a related tool called MapReduce.
‘Mainway chained through its database continuously—”operating on a 7×24 basis,” according to the classified project summary,’ Gellman writes.
‘You might compare its work, on the most basic level, to indexing a book—albeit a book with hundreds of millions of topics (phone numbers) and trillions of entries (phone calls).
‘One flaw in this comparison is that it sounds like a job that will be finished eventually. Mainway’s job never ended. It was trying to index a book in progress, forever incomplete.’
A graph from a leaked NSA document showed how the phone records were stored in Mainway, a surveillance tool developed immediately after the September 11, 2001, terror attacks
The Mainway records fed into another database called the Graph-in-Memory, generated summary maps of an individual’s contacts.
Authorities used those maps when investigating suspects in terror attacks like the Boston bombing.
‘To keep a Tsarnaev graph at the ready, Mainway also had to precompute a graph for everyone else,’ Gellman explains.
‘And if Mainway had your phone records, it also held a rough and ready diagram of your business and personal life.
‘As I parsed the documents and interviewed sources in the fall of 2013, the implications finally sank in. The NSA had built a live, ever-updating social graph of the US.’
He continues: ‘Our phone records were not in cold storage. They did not sit untouched. They were arranged in a one-hop contact chain of each to all. All kinds of secrets—social, medical, political, professional—were precomputed, 24/7.
Gellman and the two other journalists who received the Snowden documents in 2013 – filmmaker Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian – won a Pulitzer Prize for their reporting on NSA surveillance programs
‘Ledgett told me he saw no cause for concern because “the links are unassembled until you launch a query.” I saw a database that was preconfigured to map anyone’s life at the touch of a button.’
Gellman acknowledges that there were strict rules on how the records could be used, and that only 22 top US officials had access to them.
He says he does not believe that the NSA ‘made corrupt use of its real-time map’ – but emphasizes that the map’s mere existence made that a possibility.
‘History has not been kind to the belief that government conduct always follows rules or that the rules will never change in dangerous ways,’ he writes.
‘Rules can be bypassed or rewritten—with or without notice, with or without malignant intent, by a few degrees at a time or more than a few.’
The full excerpt from Dark Mirror book was published by Wired on Monday.
Gellman and the two other journalists who received the Snowden documents in 2013 – filmmaker Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian – won a Pulitzer Prize for their reporting on NSA surveillance programs.