Snowden Leaks MYSTIC NSA Surveillance System 3/18/14


Documents Snowden leaked – an NSA program known as MYSTIC. Giving the ability to retrieve all recordings of phone calls in certain (non-US) countries going back at least 30 days.

Relatively new capability, program launched in 2009 and reached “full capacity” in 2011.

Snowden Leaks MYSTIC NSA Surveillance System

In the initial deployment, collection systems are recording “every single” conversation nationwide, storing billions of them in a 30-day rolling buffer that clears the oldest calls as new ones arrive, according to a classified summary.

The call buffer opens a door “into the past,” the summary says, enabling users to “retrieve audio of interest that was not tasked at the time of the original call.” Analysts listen to only a fraction of 1 percent of the calls, but the absolute numbers are high. Each month, they send millions of voice clippings, or “cuts,” for processing and long-term storage.

It’s a mystery what countries MYSTIC is operational in, it’s difficult to see how the NSA could do this without assistance (knowing or unknowing) from the various telcos in the targeted countries. And, of course, once this effort is online, the NSA just wants to keep expanding it:

Some of the documents provided by Snowden suggest that high-volume eavesdropping may soon be extended to other countries, if it has not been already. The RETRO tool was built three years ago as a “unique one-off capability,” but last year’s secret intelligence budget named five more countries for which the MYSTIC program provides “comprehensive metadata access and content,” with a sixth expected to be in place by last October.

Basically, once the NSA has the ability to snoop on everyone’s phone calls, it only wants to do more of that. And more and more.

As Gellman’s report notes, this seems to (once again) contradict claims by US officials, including President Obama, that “the United States is not spying on ordinary people who don’t threaten our national security… and that we take their privacy concerns into account.” Of course, that all depends on how you define “spying.” In the “collect it all” world of the NSA, merely collecting that data isn’t considered “spying.”

This program also helps to explain why the NSA has been so focused on getting that massive data center online in Bluffdale, Utah. There had been talk that the NSA had too much data to store and analyze effectively, but prior leaks didn’t seem to involve enough data to really cause a problem. However, storing the audio of 30 days of every phone call in a half a dozen (or more!) countries could certainly add up quite quickly. And, indeed, that’s what the documents suggest. Another document notes that this project “has long since reached the point where it was collecting and sending home far more than the bandwidth could handle.” Hence: Utah.

And, of course, having full audio of all phone calls can lead to all sorts of detailed information, including information on Americans (who, remember, the NSA isn’t supposed to spy on):

Highly classified briefings cite examples in which the tool offered high-stakes intelligence that would not have existed under traditional surveillance programs in which subjects were identified for targeting in advance. Unlike most of the government’s public claims about the value of controversial programs, the briefings supply names, dates, locations and fragments of intercepted calls in convincing detail.

Present and former U.S. officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity to provide context for a classified program, acknowledged that large numbers of conversations involving Americans would be gathered from the country where RETRO operates.

The NSA does not attempt to filter out their calls, defining them as communications “acquired incidentally as a result of collection directed against appropriate foreign intelligence targets.”

At this point, these kinds of leaks aren’t that surprising, but this does confirm some people’s suspicions about the NSA’s capabilities — and the continuing mission creep as it gets more and more powerful in what information it can collect and store.

New Edward Snowden Leaks Details

(U) Tasking of SCALAWAG (TS//SI//REL TO USA, FVEY) SCALAWAG/US­3310BG has long since  reached the point where it was collecting and sending home far more  than the bandwidth could handle. Over collecting has significantly  increased the latency of pri 1­2 content data. Because SCALAWAG is  NSA’s #1 provider of actionable SIGINT on [REDACTED COUNTRY  NAME], measures had to be taken to alleviate pressure on the  bandwidth and decrease latency of priority 1­2 data. In the summer of  2011, in an effort decrease the amount of voice content brought home,  SSO deleted a large quantity of priority 4 and below tasking that was  bringing content and according to the DOUBLEARROW database had  not been “touched”. Additionally, a change of priority 4 tasking to  priority 6 was effected, again based on DOUBLEARROW results. As a  result, the latency for primarily pri 1­2 had dropped considerably.  However, these actions were still falling short because the volume of  collection was increasing …. (S//SI//REL TO USA, FVEY) On 15 December 2011, SSO collection  and program management implemented a rule for SCALAWAG UTT  tasking, that basically does not allow any “Effective Collection Priority”  (ECP) pri 4 and below tasking. It must be understood that the priority  of tasking in UTT IS NOT the same and straight forward as OCTAVE.  Analysts must choose fields whose net result is priority 1­3.  Additionally, all UTT ECP pri 4 and below tasking was deleted. Since  implementation, some TOPIS may have noted a decrease total volume  in their SCALAWAG collection delivered to their NUCLEON accounts.  Many SCALAWAG users are familiar with and have access to the  RETROSPECTIVE retrieval tool (RETRO TOOL).  The RETRO tool is  a unique one­off capability that exists only at SCALAWAG. It allows  analysts to go nominally 30­days into the past and retrieve audio of interest that was not tasked at the time of the original call. Analyst  retrievals should be based on metadata, SRI found in FASCIA, that’ll  indicate there’s a target of interest that’s been detected in  SCALAWAG’s environment. Once the audio is identified, retrieved, and  forwarded to your NUCLEON account, analysts would then consider  tasking the number in UTT at ECP 1­3, based on the critical need for  the data. (S//SI//REL TO USA, FVEY) Retrieval and forwarding via the RETRO  TOOL will significantly reduce bandwidth and latency issues. It will also  likely result in getting the audio data back to your NUCLEON account  more quickly than if tasked at ECP 4 and below. We strongly request  that TOPIs do not artificially inflate the priority of their tasking just to  get numbers tasked. SIGDEV/Target development should be  accomplished using the RETRO TOOL and subsequent tasking occur  based on SIGDEV. TOPIs should make use of the RETRO TOOL  whenever possible to retrieve the desired audio content. We do not  have the luxury of task and forget.


A particular SIGAD, or Signals Intelligence Address, under the MYSTIC program. This describes where the data collection occurs

What is SIGINT?

Signals Intelligence – Information collected from electronic and radio communications.


Believed to be one of the NSA’s voice-processing databases

What does ECP mean?

Effective Collection Priority: This specifies which tasks get precendence

What is NUCLEON?

NUCLEON is NSA’s signals intelligence database for voice content (telephone calls)

What is FASCIA?

The NSA’s data “repository” or warehouse for location metadata

What is TOPI?

The primary office within NSA responsible for reporting on a given topic.

What does UTT stand for?

Universal Targeting Tool: A system that allows for expansion of tasking selectors, such as converting a target’s name into a telephone number.

What is the RETRO tool?

Voice audio recording buffer that allows retrieval of content captured up to 30 days into the past

What is SRI?

Signals Related Information: Data generated when information is collected, such as dates, times, phone numbers, frequencies, transmission modes and protocol information.

MYSTIC, the surveillance system with its emblem featuring a wizard with a telephone-headed staff. The program’s RETRO capabilities, short for “retrospective retrieval,”

The system works by initially casting a wide net, recording “every single” conversation within the target nation, then storing billions of those calls in a 30-day rolling buffer that erases the oldest calls as newer ones are saved. A summary of the program indicates that the buffer opens a door “into the past” by allowing users to “retrieve audio of interest that was not tasked at the time of the original call.”

The significance of having 30 days of recorded conversations readily accessible is that it allows the NSA to instantaneously pull a history of a subject’s movements, their associates and their plans. Just two decades ago, such information would only be obtainable if an American was in direct communication with a foreign intelligence target.

While officials acknowledge that capturing massive volumes of data in this fashion yields little that is relative to national security, it is in the off-chance that something valuable is obtained that makes MYSTIC worthwhile.

Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council, declined to comment on “specific alleged intelligence activities,” in a statement. She did add that “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.”

Vanee Vines, a spokeswoman for the NSA, wrote in an e-mail statement that “continuous and selective reporting of specific techniques and tools used for legitimate U.S. foreign intelligence activities is highly detrimental to the national security of the United States and of our allies, and places at risk those we are sworn to protect.”

Vines added that the work of NSA is being “strictly conducted under the rule of law.”
RETRO and MYSTIC are carried out under Executive Order 12333, the traditional grant of presidential authority to intelligence agencies for operations outside the United States.

Documents leaked last year by Snowden suggested that the RETRO tool was built as a “unique one-off capability,” but according to The Post, the 2013 secret intelligence budget contained appropriations for deployment in five more countries with a sixth expected to be operational by last October.

In January, President Obama instructed the NSA and other agencies that bulk data gathering may be used only to collect intelligence on one of six specified threats, including nuclear proliferation and terrorism. The directive also stated that limits on bulk collection “do not apply to signals intelligence data that is temporarily acquired to facilitate targeted collection.”

There have been signs that the program has been limited by the NSA’s capacity to store and transmit the large voice files procured by MYSTIC.

While analysts listen to less than 1 percent of the calls recorded, each month they send millions of voice clippings to be processed for long-term storage. One official close to the program told The Post that after just one year, the program, “long since reached the point where it was collecting and sending home far more than the bandwidth could handle.”

But that could soon change. In order to facilitate the storage of vast quantities of data obtained across all of the NSA’s surveillance programs, it is progressing on the development of cloud-based storage systems and a colossal “mission data repository” in Utah, according to an overview briefing.

See Also: Edward Snowden details contain TURBINE, other surveillance technology

JTRIG Leaks Part 1

How To Stop NSA Spying

Sources: ,

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