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Perimeter

6/13/2006
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New Terrorist Profile: Phone Users

For better or worse, VOIP may have just gotten its biggest shot in the arm ever

Let's see now. The National Security Agency has a secret program to spy on Americans. No wait, the NSA has two secret programs to spy on Americans. According to recent news stories, both programs involve monitoring the use of good old fashioned telephones. How quaint!

Remember those funny old wooden telephones with the cup-shaped cones, and the brass bells that were usually connected to party line switches? Back then the NSA's job must have been easier. All they had to do was listen in on the party line. Remember those telephones that used switched networks back in the '90s? Back then the NSA's job must have been easier. All they had to do was insert a tap between point A and point B. Remember when VOIP didn't use crypto? Well, you get the picture.

Fortunately for us geeks, we don't use the public switched telephone network much anymore.

"We Only Listen to Terrorists"

The first secret program, authorized by President Bush, supposedly targeted only suspected terrorists. American citizens could be involved on either end of a conversation with a suspected terrorist, and the call would be intercepted and monitored. By setting things up through the NSA, the president bypassed a number of laws meant to protect Americans against widespread government eavesdropping, including the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) of 1978. The Department of Defense runs the NSA, and the Justice Department has no purview over the DOD.

The problem with bypassing laws meant to protect American citizens from being spied on by their own government is that once that happens, there is no public oversight involved in the resulting eavesdropping. As an American citizen, I think this is a disturbing development that is unlikely to pay off in the fight against terrorism.

We know that the NSA has impressive eavesdropping capabilities. Witness the secret Echelon program that is probably the largest information gathering system on the planet. Echelon is able to keep tabs on the billions of international electronic communications made per day, applying both data mining for words and phrases as well as building up information on who is communicating with whom.

But the NSA dragnet is now being applied inside the country. Most security experts think that this "turning in" is unlikely to help.

Into the "Pen/Trap"

The second secret program involves what is known as "pen/trap" monitoring. In this kind of monitoring, the data collected involves who calls whom and when. As an aside, note that it's much easier to obtain a warrant to carry out this kind of surveillance than it is to obtain a warrant to listen in on the conversations themselves. But that doesn't matter, because President Bush has authorized the NSA to carry out pen/trap monitoring without a warrant.

Some might argue that having the government keep track of who calls whom should not be a problem for those with nothing to hide. Why should you care if they keep track of everyone you call? One problem is, if data can be monetized today, they will be monetized.

Some examples may make this clear. Just before a merger or acquisition, information about the number and frequency of calls between organization A and organization B may be extremely valuable. (This goes for the Pentagon too, where there are more late-night calls to Domino's as war approaches.)

Secondly, these kind of data can also be abused to shut people up or otherwise intimidate them, as has apparently been the case with call data and reporters. Thirdly, in a mountain of data like this, mistakes in collection will be made, turning perfectly innocent people into instant suspects.

Once again, most security people don't find this tactic a fair tradeoff, given its dire impact on personal liberty.

The Skype Workaround

One possible way to avoid being trawled up with the oyster shells and bottom feeders in the NSA telecom dragnet may be to use IP telephony. Surely the bad guys (who apparently operate on a shoe string and use the Internet as a tool with some consistency) know this. Judging by what I've heard about actual terrorist use of the Internet, I would not be at all surprised if the bad guys use Skype. Maybe some of them even use Phil Zimmerman's Speak Freely?

Hopefully those who spy on our behalf are not spending all of their effort on the easy to monitor data without considering the corner cases. That would be like the drunk who searches for his car keys only under the streetlight.

— Gary McGraw is CTO of Cigital Inc. Special to Dark Reading

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