NSA programs MYSTIC and RETRO spies phone calls on global scale, also on past conversations

Pierluigi Paganini March 19, 2014

Documents leaked by Snowden reveals that NSA has built a surveillance system capable of recording all the phone calls of a foreign country.

The information on the surveillance capabilities of the National Security Agency is updated on a daily base and last news is that the agency has the necessary technology to record all the phone calls of an entire country and replaying them later.

The news has been refused by a report based on Edward Snowden leaked documents and described the Washington Post. A senior manager for the program described the technology used in the interception as a “time machine” that is able to analyze also phone calls occurred in the past. When I read it, I immediately thought to the series “Person of Interest”, probably the amazing producer Jonathan Nolan have imagined something of similar.

The NSA can collect 100 percent of the phone calls of a target country and use the tools codenamed as MYSTIC and RETRO to search and reanalyze each conversation, the document revealed that the tools can “retrieve audio of interest that was not tasked at the time of the original call.”

NSA Mystic Retro intercept phone calls

The news is shocking and IT experts have called the tool as the most powerful instrument used by the NSA for surveillance,  the spy agency is able to tap into the entire network from a country. It must be considered that analysts listen to only a fraction of 1 percent of the calls, MYSTIC and RETRO instruments give them the possibility to analyze phone calls in each time window.

“The National Security Agency has built a surveillance system capable of recording “100 percent” of a foreign country’s telephone calls, enabling the agency to rewind and review conversations as long as a month after they take place, according to people with direct knowledge of the effort and documents supplied by former contractor Edward Snowden.” reports the article published on the Washington Post.

The voice interception program MYSTIC was started in 2009 meanwhile its RETRO tool reached full capacity against the first target nation in 2011.  According to a classified summary, billions of phone calls every day were collected and archived, the oldest calls were deleted once the buffer is saturated for the arrival of new conversations.

 “Ubiquitous voice surveillance, even overseas, pulls in a great deal of content from Americans who telephone, visit, and work in the target country,”  “Present and former U.S. officials acknowledged that large numbers of conversations involving Americans would be gathered from the country where RETRO operates.” The Washington Post reports.

At the time I was writing The National Security Agency hasn’t commented the news, probably as already happened the Agency will confirm to have operated respecting laws as well as the privacy rights of Americans and foreigners.

 “new or emerging threats” are “often hidden within the large and complex system of modern global communications, and the United States must consequently collect signals intelligence in bulk in certain circumstances in order to identify these threats.” said “Caitlin Hayden, spokeswoman for the National Security Council.

US Intelligence is defending the numerous surveillance programs disclosed by Edward Snowden sustaining that those projects have avoided in the past terrorist acts and that they are necessary instruments to grant Homeland Security

The problem is that in many cases the monitoring systems have gone beyond the purpose for which they were designed and have been used in an “improper” way to monitor the actions of governments and foreign companies.

Anyway, President Barack Obama has started a process to reforms the surveillance programs and the related activities.

Pierluigi Paganini

(Security Affairs –  NSA, Mystic, Retro)

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