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The Pulpit
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Weekly Column

The Falafel Connection: All Those NSA Wiretaps Are Just a Friendster in Disguise

Status: [CLOSED]
By Robert X. Cringely

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!"

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