Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World. This past January, President Obama addressed the nation about NSA surveillance.
President Barack Obama: The bottom line is that people around the world, regardless of their nationality, should know 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.
Werman: Well these global privacy concerns have surfaced yet again. The Washington Post broke a story yesterday about another NSA program called MYSTIC that has been collecting 30 days' worth of all voice communications in one country. The name of that country was withheld from print. Ashkan Soltani, reported on the story for The Washington Post. The revelation of MYSTIC, another one made possible by Edward Snowden - how does MYSTIC actually work, Ashkan?
Ashkan Soltani: The program MYSTIC, that we described, has the ability to record 100% of calls made in or to or from a particular country. What we describe in a bit more detail is about this retroactive, or retro program, that's present in at least one country, possibly two, that allows the NSA to not only record all of the country's phone calls but to record it for a rolling buffer of 30 days.
Werman: For listeners who don't quite get it, this is way more than metadata, which is the who and the where and the when. How surprised were you by this quantum leap of data collection?
Soltani: We had an understanding that the NSA is collecting metadata, the information about who you call, as well as internet data, what websites you visit. This type of stuff is actually not that large in capacity. The ability to record an entire country's phone calls for 30 days, that's a newer capacity that we had not previously aware of.
Werman: Knowing what you know, do you believe that after 30 days they really get rid of it?
Soltani: They get rid of the rolling buffers. This is kind of like your TiVo automatically deleting old shows that you don't watch. However, when cuts are selected, when information is sent back home, those are then retained and stored and used for intel if they have a legitimate intelligence purpose. One of the most interesting pieces is that there is definitely incidental collection occurring. People call certain countries abroad, people travel to certain countries abroad, so there's definitely incidental collection of US persons information in these buffers.
Werman: It seems to fly in the face of what President Obama laid out in his January speech about NSA surveillance. "We take people's privacy concerns into account." How is this program legal considering he said all of that?
Soltani: I think the legality comes around some really broad definitions of relevant to national security and some really narrow definitions with regards to what the NSA means by "collection." Our understanding of storing into a temporary buffer, a rolling buffer that no one listens to, isn't actually collection. Only when someone processes that audio and listens to the file, only at that point is it actually considered collection.
Werman: That sounds kind of like a semantic trick.
Soltani: It's a philosophical question. We're seeing this in other areas with regards to Gmail scanning your emails and other technologies that automatically process information. The question is if a computer records your information but no one listens to it, is it still spying?
Werman: Given where this revelation takes our understanding of surveillance right now, what questions does this new information conjure up for you?
Soltani: Now this idea that we will record everything with the assumption that at some point later in time it will become valuable, that starts giving me the creeps a little bit. If we recorded everything for the purpose of then later being able to go back and find evidence of a crime, that starts raising concerns for a lot of people.
Werman: Does it make you wonder how much this might be happening in the United States or are you not even going there yet?
Soltani: I'm not even going there yet but the idea is if you can cheaply record everything and it might come in handy, why not do it?
Werman: Ashkan Soltani, an independent technology consultant. He recently reported on the NSA's voice interception program called MYSTIC for The Washington Post. Thank you Ashkan, great to talk.
Soltani: Thanks for having me.