U.S. News


NSA Can Record Entire Countries' Worth Of Phone Calls

A new report says the agency can record literally every phone call made in a target country for up to 30 days.
Posted at 7:48 PM, Mar 18, 2014

"When it comes to telephone calls, nobody is listening to your telephone calls." (Via The White House)

Ever since the first of Edward Snowden's leaks about government surveillance was published last June, one of the big unanswered questions has been: Can the NSA record the contents of phone calls in bulk, the way it records metadata? (Via The Guardian)

On Tuesday, that question was answered. The Washington Post, using leaks by Edward Snowden and interviews with NSA officials, says the agency can scoop up literally every single phone call made in a target country, and that it stores the recordings of those calls for 30 days.

The report focuses on MYSTIC and RETRO, two programs involved in the bulk collection. "No other NSA program disclosed to date has swallowed a nation’s telephone network whole. Outside experts have sometimes described that prospect as disquieting but remote."

The report doesn't say which country was the target but does say the program has grown to include six, possibly seven countries.

Earlier reports about mass surveillance abroad claimed the agency recorded millions of phone calls, but those reports never even hinted at 100-percent surveillance. All along, tech experts have been skeptical whether such a program was even possible, saying that's just too much data. (Via El Mundo, Le Monde, The New York Times)

Now we know better, and like other NSA programs that have been unveiled, Gizmodo points out this one carries, "the strong possibility that Americans are unwittingly being spied on while these calls are recorded. After all, if 100 percent of a country's calls are going on the record, it seems unavoidable that American voices would be heard."

The NSA has excused what it calls "incidental" surveillance, saying if Americans' communications are swept up over the course of legitimate data collection in other countries, then it's not unconstitutional.

In fact, the Post's report says data from Americans isn't deleted once it's discovered, and can even be used in intelligence reports with the name of the American in question still attached.

The ACLU called Tuesday's report "chilling," and added "​The NSA has always wanted to record everything, and now it has the capacity to do so."

NSA spokespeople defended the programs in a way that's become familiar over the past nine months, saying bulk collection is necessary for national security and reporting about the programs makes the U.S. less safe.