Saturday, July 13, 2013

Every Phone in America?

Some years back, in a chapter of my Future Imperfect, I mentioned a scene in an old movie ("The President's Analyst") where it turns out that the bad guys have been tapping every phone in America and suggested that it was now  practical to do it, with computers instead of people listening.  The main cost of wiretaps in the past was labor, and computers work cheap. 

Artificial intelligence is not yet good enough to understand phone calls, but it does not have to. Speech to text software can convert conversations to a machine readable form, keyword searches can spot the tiny minority of conversations of possible interest, and human beings can take it from there. I argued at the time ("my brief for the bad guys") that one could plausibly argue that until a human got involved, no warrant was needed, and at that point the success of the keyword search provided the legal justification to get one.

Which raises an obvious question: How good a prophet was I? Can any of my readers who have followed Snowdon's revelations and their consequences more carefully than I have say how much of my proposal was implemented by the actual bad guys? Were they using speech to text and keyword searches to decide what a human would look at? Did their legal justification include the claim that no warrant was needed as long as no human listened to, or read, the content of the call? Did they argue that, once a call of possible interest was spotted, the successful computer search provided the probable cause needed to justify a human search?

1 comment:

lelnet said...

There is nothing in Snowden's leaks about monitoring the actual content of phone calls, whether by humans or by's all about metadata. ("Person A, located at position B, initiated communication with Person C, located at position D, at time E, for duration F.")

Of course, they may indeed be implementing some version of your prediction, but if they are, Snowden didn't know about it. And even if not, the art and science of discerning useful intelligence from precisely this sort of metadata is both very old and quite sophisticated. (Famously, in the runup to the WW2 D-Day invasion, the Allies spent quite a significant amount of manpower creating bogus communication traffic pertaining to an entirely fictitious military unit, supposedly commanded by General Patton, just to convince the German command that the Normandy invasion was a feint, and the real main thrust would be elsewhere. They were able to do this because they knew in advance that the Germans were doing exactly this sort of traffic analysis.)

The theory and practice have continued to improve, since those days. You can learn a downright shocking quantity of relevant facts about the targets of your spying, just from this sort of metadata, if you have all of it.

Surely knowledge of the contents of conversations is often handy, but much of the work of spies and detectives throughout time has gone quite effectively on the basis of learning who was going where, talking to whom, and for how long, because eavesdropping on the conversations of one's enemies was less practical in the days before wiretapping. And all of that sort of information falls under "metadata".

Much as you and I might dislike it, American courts do not believe in any sort of affirmative right of individual privacy in this sort of metadata. The communication providers who possess the metadata may (or, as the case increasingly appears to be, may not) require warrants or subpoenas before handing it over to the government, but the actual parties to the communication have never had any direct say in the matter.