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Profile: Phil Karn

Phil Karn was a participant or observer in the following events:

Chart showing NSA surveillance network.Chart showing NSA surveillance network. [Source: NSA Watch] (click image to enlarge)The National Security Agency has built a far larger database of information collected from warrantless surveillance of telephone and Internet communications to and from US citizens than the NSA or the Bush administration has acknowledged (see October 2001). On December 15, the New York Times exposed the NSA’s program (see December 15, 2005), which was authorized by President Bush in early 2002 (see Early 2002), but which actually began far earlier (see Spring 2001). The NSA built its database with the cooperation of several major American telecommunications firms (see June 26, 2006), and much of the information was mined directly into the US telecommunications system’s major connections. Many law enforcement and judicial officials question the legality of the program (see May 12, 2006 and December 18, 2005), and many say the program goes beyond the bounds of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (see 1978). One question is whether the FISA Court, or FISC, can authorize monitoring of international communications that pass through US-based telephonic “switches,” which handle much of the US’s electronic communications traffic. “There was a lot of discussion about the switches” in conversations with FISC, says a Justice Department official. “You’re talking about access to such a vast amount of communications, and the question was, How do you minimize something that’s on a switch that’s carrying such large volumes of traffic? The court was very, very concerned about that.” While Bush and his officials have insisted that the warrantless wiretaps only target people with known links to al-Qaeda, they have not acknowledged that NSA technicials have not only eavesdropped on specific conversations between people with no known links to terrorism, but have combed through huge numbers of electronic communications in search of “patterns” that might point to terrorism suspects. Such “pattern analysis” usually requires court warrants before surveillance can begin, but in many cases, no such warrants have been obtained or even requested. Other, similar data-mining operations, such as the Total Information Awareness program, developed by the Defense Department to track terror suspects (see March 2002), and the Department of Homeland Security’s CAPPS program, which screened airline passengers (see (6:20 a.m.-7:48 a.m.) September 11, 2001), were subjected to intense public scrutiny and outrage, and were publicly scrapped. The Bush administration has insisted that it has no intention of scrapping the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping program, because, as its officials have said, it is necessary to identify and track terrorism suspects and foil terrorist plots before they can be hatched. Administration officials say that FISC is not quick enough to respond to its need to respond to potential terrorist acts. A former technology manager at a major telecommunications company says that after 9/11, the leading telecom firms have been storing information on calling patterns and giving it to the federal government to aid in tracking possible terrorists. “All that data is mined with the cooperation of the government and shared with them, and since 9/11, there’s been much more active involvement in that area,” says the former manager. “If they get content, that’s useful to them too, but the real plum is going to be the transaction data and the traffic analysis. Massive amounts of traffic analysis information—who is calling whom, who is in Osama Bin Laden’s circle of family and friends—is used to identify lines of communication that are then given closer scrutiny.” And, according to a government expert on communications privacy who used to work at the NSA, says that in the last few years, the government has quietly encouraged the telecom firms to rout more international traffic through its US-based switches so it can be monitored. Such traffic is not fully addressed by 1970s-era laws that were written before the onset of modern communications technology; neither does FISA adequately address the issues surrounding that technology. Computer engineer Phil Karn, who works for a major West Coast telecom firm, says access to those switches is critical: “If the government is gaining access to the switches like this, what you’re really talking about is the capability of an enormous vacuum operation to sweep up data.” [New York Times, 12/24/2005]

Entity Tags: US Department of Defense, US Department of Justice, Total Information Awareness, New York Times, US Department of Homeland Security, Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System, Bush administration (43), Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, George W. Bush, National Security Agency, Phil Karn

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties


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