Skynet, the US top-secret program to track terrorists

Pierluigi Paganini May 11, 2015

Snowden revealed the existence of Skynet, a system designed by the NSA for online monitoring of terrorists and suspects through metadata analysis.

Skynet is a real system designed by the NSA for online monitoring through metadata analysis, this is the last revelation made by the journalist Glenn Greenwald through the website The Intercept.

The Intercept revealed the existence of a secret program called Skynet, a name that’s become popular due to the Terminator Movie. In the Terminator movie, Skynet was the sophisticated system that attempted to annihilate the human being, the NSA’s program dubbed Skynet was designed for the identification of people with terrorist connections by using metadata.

The U.S. government labeled Ahmad Muaffaq Zaidan, Al Jazeera’s longtime Islamabad bureau chief, as a member of Al Qaeda and placed him on a watch list of suspected terrorists. The story was reported in a top-secret document leaked by Snowden.

skynet slide

skynet alleged suspect document-redacted2-article-display-b

“A slide dated June 2012 from a National Security Agency PowerPoint presentation bears his [Ahmad Muaffaq Zaidan] photo, name, and a terror watch list identification number, and labels him a “member of Al-Qa’ida” as well as the Muslim Brotherhood. It also notes that he “works for Al Jazeera.” The presentation was among the documents provided by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.” states the report.  

The Skynet the program tracked the movements of persons of interest within Pakistan by collecting cell phone records in order to identify members of terrorist cells operating in the area. The US Intelligence monitored every activity that could be linked to operations of Al Qaeda couriers.

Skynet analyzed cell phone tracks of suspects “who has traveled from Peshawar to Faisalabad or Lahore (and back) in the past month? Who does the traveler call when he arrives?” It also looks for suspicious behaviors such as someone who engages in “excessive SIM or handset swapping” or receives “incoming calls only.”

Skynet tracked Zaidan because his interactions with Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders matched a suspicious pattern, such as his movements in the monitored area.

“That presentation states that the call data is acquired from major Pakistani telecom providers, though it does not specify the technical means by which the data is obtained. The June 2012 document poses the question: “Given a handful of courier selectors, can we find others that ‘behave similarly’” by analyzing cell phone metadata? “We are looking for different people using phones in similar ways,” the presentation continues, and measuring “pattern of life, social network, and travel behavior.” continues the Intercept.

Just for curiosity, Skynet has been the second architecture designed by the NSA that share the name with the systems mentioned in the Terminator movie. The other one is MonsterMind, a system developed by the NSA to automatically mitigate and respond cyberattacks without human intervention.

The NSA still hasn’t commented the existence of the Skynet system.

Pierluigi Paganini

(Security Affairs – NSA, Skynet)  

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