back to article NSA spies recorded an entire COUNTRY'S phone calls for a MONTH: Report

The NSA is recording all of the voice calls in one unnamed country and keeping those recordings for 30 days at a time as part of a previously undisclosed rolling wiretap programme, according to leaks recently published in WSJ. Millions of voice "cuts" are extracted for long time storage as part of a system called MYSTIC that's …

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  1. Adrian 4 Silver badge
    Facepalm

    Kept sectret from the public, or from the target government ?

    It's not clear from that article whether the calls were tapped with or without the target country's support.

    1. james 68

      Re: Kept sectret from the public, or from the target government ?

      Well if its the UK you can be guaranteed our lords and masters just bent over and said "sure... just ram it right on in there".

      Spineless bastards the lot of them.

      1. ravenviz Silver badge
        Stop

        Re: Kept sectret from the public, or from the target government ?

        Be careful with making judgements on an assumption.

      2. James O'Brien
        Black Helicopters

        Re: james 68

        Don't forget the States as being one of those that is being recorded. Because we need to make sure big brother is keeping us safe.

        Helis because I'm pretty sure I hear them circling like Vultures right now.

      3. Matt Bryant Silver badge
        Stop

        Re: James 68 Re: Kept sectret from the public, or from the target government ?

        "....if its the UK....." Don't be silly, the UK is probably waaaay down the list. My bet would be on Pakistan as top choice, followed by Qatar, then Saudi, UAE, North Sudan, North Korea, maybe Cyprus (fave hangout for Russian mafia, arms dealers and exiled Palestinian and Lebanese "freedom fighters"), or even Switzerland (not a NATO partner and full of dodgy bank accounts) before we even get round to any large European countries.

        1. james 68

          Re: James 68 Kept sectret from the public, or from the target government ?

          I bet Angela Merkel thought Germany would be waaaaaaayyyyyyyyy down the list too.

          1. codejunky Silver badge

            Re: James 68 Kept sectret from the public, or from the target government ?

            "I bet Angela Merkel thought Germany would be waaaaaaayyyyyyyyy down the list too."

            Not forgetting that germany is the weak link of the eurozone. The eurozone lives or dies based on germany right now.

            1. Anonymous Coward
              Anonymous Coward

              Re: James 68 Kept sectret from the public, or from the target government ?

              Doesn't that make them the STRONGEST link then? Apart from the Netherlands and Austria, it seems there are only weak links in this assembly. Certainly everything south from the Alps...

  2. Mystic Megabyte Silver badge
    Joke

    Disc full

    I wondered why my cloud space is always full. Presumably the handle Mystic Zetabyte is already taken.

  3. Lionel Baden

    not the most important question

    But I wonder what format its stored in ?

    1. hplasm Silver badge
      Happy

      Re: not the most important question

      .docx ?

    2. Charles Manning

      Most likely format...

      8k PCM, either raw or as a WAV file or ADPCM (.vox).

      These are what are used by computer telephony etc, so will be the most immediately available data.

      ADPCM is a bit lossy and introduces white noise. It takes half the space, but recording quality does down.

  4. Evil Auditor Silver badge

    "...in one unnamed country..."

    It didn't say in one foreign country, did it?

    1. Imsimil Berati-Lahn

      Re: "...in one unnamed country..."

      I wonder what it's like being a citizen of <NUL>.

      If you forget when your doctors appointment is, can you get the NSA to text you a reminder?

  5. James Boag

    re Lionel Baden

    Knowing the NSA it will be a WAV file lol

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: re Lionel Baden

      Every call recording system I've ever worked with have used WAVs, it's highly likely that they will be using off-the-shelf stuff, re-purposed and scaled up, so it is highly likely they'll be using WAV, but no lol.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: re Lionel Baden

        Every call recording system I've ever worked with have used WAVs

        Only for ease of use, plenty will do smaller MP3 and even better, many with do vox files, which are tiny.

        So long as they are not capturing DTMF tones, as they wouldn't want to fail any compliance laws would they?

    2. Tom7

      Re: re Lionel Baden

      Well, supposing the country is the UK, a quick Google search fetches up the number of 132 million phone calls made every day here. Suppose they all last for an average of 10 minutes (not everyone can match my mother's phone habits, after all), and it's stored as 8kHz 16-bit PCM (8kHz is what the POTS is designed to carry, being sufficient for human voice) then over 30 days you're collecting 1.32x10^8 x 10 x 60 x 8x10^3 x (16/2) x 30 = 1.52x10^14 bytes required to store it all for 30 days. 152TB. It's not peanuts, exactly, but surely the NSA can manage better than this?

      And before someone leaps in, yes, MP3 or Vorbis or whatever could reduce that a bit, but bear in mind that they work by throwing away frequencies that aren't interesting, and you've already thrown away 80% of the audible frequency range by encoding it as 8kHz PCM; you're not going to get the same compression ratios that you managed with your CD collection.

      1. Lionel Baden

        Re: re Lionel Baden

        @tom7 RE: 8khz

        I had actually thought it would of been a better quality and or possibly compressed into another format. that way if needed to they could analyze background data etc etc

        But i suppose that 150TB isn't much at all when your thinking about the volume.

        But then add on top of that replication etc etc maybe it does add up quite quickly.

        1. Charles Manning

          Re: re Lionel Baden

          "had actually thought it would of been a better quality "

          Since the phone signalling itself is 8kHz you can't be doing any better than that.

          They would be recording the digital stuff, straight off the T3 connections. They would not be storing analogue.

      2. JetSetJim Silver badge

        Re: re Lionel Baden

        >Suppose they all last for an average of 10 minutes

        Standard industry models are calls lasting 90-120 seconds. Obviously it varies a bit by country and pricing plan, too (Italians talk a lot IIRC, for example).

      3. tom dial Silver badge

        Re: re Lionel Baden

        I make it out, on the given assumptions as:

        132*10^6 calls/day,

        600 seconds/call,

        8000 samples/second,

        2 bytes/sample, and

        30 days/month

        so 1.32*10^8 * 6*10^2 * 8*10^3 * 2 * 3*10 = 3.8*10^16 bytes, which my calculators assure me is 34,560 TB, rather larger than the 152 TB given, but less than the 152 petabytes that the calculation shown actually gives. Still doable, though, with about 8600x4TB disks.

        The unnamed country probably is not the UK. I can think of a number of likely ones, none of them English speaking, European, or American (either North or South).

        1. Charles Manning

          Better numbers.

          Pick a smaller country. People like to do digital experiments on New Zealand : population 5M.

          Let's say everyone in NZ spends 5 minutes on the phone a day (10 sounds too much). Sampled at 8khz, 8 bits.

          That's 360TB. With half-decent compression -> 100TB.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: Better numbers.

            That's 360TB. With half-decent compression -> 100TB.

            So uncle sam needed to light up multiple (like FOUR) 100Mb cables between his victim and back home without ANYONE there being a little bit suspicious? That must have cost a fortune.

            Seems likely the country has a complicit government to have helped out with the logistics and the financing. Pakistan?

      4. John Smith 19 Gold badge
        Boffin

        @Tom7

        "number of 132 million phone calls made every day here. Suppose they all last for an average of 10 minutes (not everyone can match my mother's phone habits, after all), and it's stored as 8kHz 16-bit PCM (8kHz is what the POTS is designed to carry, being sufficient for human voice) then over 30 days you're collecting 1.32x10^8 x 10 x 60 x 8x10^3 x (16/2) x 30 = 1.52x10^14 bytes required to store it all for 30 days. 152TB. It's not peanuts, exactly, but surely the NSA can manage better than this?"

        Phone CODECs are a bit different to the normal (linear) kind.

        They use a non linear sampling law (Merkins use a "mu" law, the rest of the world a different one). Basically that compresses 12 bits of dynamic range to 8.

        The question is do you have to expand this to linear forms to do analysis or can you keep it in the 8 bit format?

        For a worst case calculation, assume everyone in the UK is on the phone say 12 hours a day 365 days.

        It's a big number.

        But not big enough that the cost will deter the true data fetishist.

        1. 142

          Re: @Tom7

          Depending on the algorithm used, you can get intelligible speech at a data rate of 1kilo*bit* per second. Examples here: http://www.nine-9s.com/prod_speech_codec_comparisons.htm

          1. 142

            Re: @Tom7

            Following on to that, obviously you're not going to be doing CSI esque analysis of the audio after it's been degraded that much, but perhaps they view the speech part of the recordings as worth having even without detailed background noise. Important targets could be stored at a higher quality.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Go

      Re: re Lionel Baden

      Come on this is the good ole USA here - WMA

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Given My Call To The Tax office

    That's going to be one very big file of hold music.

  7. Dan 55 Silver badge
    Black Helicopters

    Bet it's Belgium

    It's already public knowledge that its telecom backbone has been owned, it's a small enough country, and it's where policy for practically an entire continent is formed.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Bet it's Belgium

      Wow great idea.

      If the NSA did not do it yet, it should be very high on the To-Do list.

    2. Len Silver badge

      Re: Bet it's Belgium

      That would be a good hit. Home to the European Commission, the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) and NATO among many other institutions of global importance.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Bet it's Belgium

      Or France, ex-Pres Sarkozy has already used a phone registered under a false name to escape court-ordered wiretapping, perhaps the court called in the specialists.

      Anonymous because it's pure speculation.

    4. Anonymous Coward
      Go

      Re: Bet it's Belgium

      Most certainly is Belgium. The NSA are after the recipe for Stella Artois as every Friday and Saturday night in the UK it turns mild mannered people into hooligans and thugs with no fear.

      They want to give it to the US army.

      1. Shades

        Re: Bet it's Belgium

        I realise you're only joking but Stella in the UK is actually produced in the UK and tastes like piss compared to the stuff that is brewed in Leuven, Belgium. I used to have my French ex bring me back some of the real deal, amongst other weird and wonderful brews, every time she went home to visit her parents.

  8. Anonymaus Cowark

    most likly countries

    Most likly countries would be some which have a limited infrastructure and which are high on the list of evil countries. Therefore China and UK would be ruled out. How about North Korea, Somalia or Ecuador?

    1. Evil Auditor Silver badge
      Trollface

      Re limited infrastructure and evil

      Depending on whom you ask, the UK would perfectly fulfil your two criteria.

    2. Rich 11 Silver badge

      Re: most likly countries

      How about North Korea, Somalia or Ecuador?

      There are only three phones in North Korea, and two of those don't work.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: most likly countries

      That all depends on your definition of evil as well...

      If it's a test they would surely want to test it on a high stress target, so they could spot any flaws.

      Further though, if the Washington Post knows the country, what kind of journalism is it when you don't reveal it simply because your nation says so? Perhaps there is no actual story and it's simply a plant in order to make everyone else think the NSA have greater capacities than they really do?

  9. lglethal Silver badge
    Trollface

    Place your bets

    Step up one and all, place your bets:

    5/2 North Korea

    3/1 Afghanistan

    5/1 Somalia

    6/1 Iran

    10/1 Pakistan

    20/1 Cuba

    25/1 Russia

    100/1 USA

    250/1 Mexico

    1000/1 All of the EU

    1. Anonymaus Cowark

      Re: Place your bets

      The odds are way to good for cuba.

      Where may I place my bet?

    2. Perpetual Cyclist

      Re: Place your bets

      10/1 it is a nuclear armed Islamic country with a reputation for hosting terrorist training camps in ungovernable badlands, a widespread fundamentalist insurgency , strong cultural and economic links to one of the big five, and a local intelligence community who are as likely working for the opposition as the home team.

      1. Ledswinger Silver badge

        Re: Place your bets

        "10/1 it is a nuclear armed Islamic country with a reputation for hosting terrorist training camps in ungovernable badlands, a widespread fundamentalist insurgency , strong cultural and economic links to one of the big five, and a local intelligence community who are as likely working for the opposition as the home team."

        London, then?

        1. Mephistro Silver badge
          Coffee/keyboard

          Re: Place your bets (@ Ledswinger)

          "London, then?"

          See icon --------------->

    3. Salts

      Re: Place your bets

      You missed Yemen, though as Cable & Wireless had a 130+ year presence there that one is probably covered by GCHQ.

    4. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Place your bets

      Can I put a tenner on all of the above and everywhere else?

    5. Slacker@work

      Re: Place your bets

      Maybe they just did somewhere small as a proof of concept? The Vatican for example!

      Other likely spots...

      Rockall - highly contested land mass that's only ever been populated by extremists

      Colombia - war on drugs and all that..

      Israel - lets keep an eye on those crazies, they could kick off with any of their neighbours at any time...

    6. malle-herbert Silver badge

      Re: Place your bets

      I'd go with a small(ish) country that has a fast internet tube available like The Netherlands...

    7. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Place your bets

      Well, Victoria Nuland (US Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs), was recently recorded as saying, "...and you know, fuck the EU" - albeit on a different subject matter.

      My money is on an EU country.

    8. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Place your bets

      My bet is in entry nr 5, where can I deposit 10k USD?

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