Mar 18, 2014 · 3 minutes

The National Security Agency is recording every phone call made in an unnamed "foreign country", according to a report from the Washington Post. Moreover the agency is able to "rewind and review" those conversations up to a month after they took place, like some kind of TiVo for spies.

The report says that "a fraction of one percent" of those calls are analyzed by the agency, but the "absolute numbers are high" because it sends "millions of voice clippings" away for processing and long-term storage.

Government Communications Headquarters, the British equivalent to the NSA, was previously reported to have intercepted the webcam streams of many Yahoo users. (An action that, among other things, forced the agency to sift through more cam porn than it expected.) That program was shocking not just because of the extent to which the agency was invading the privacy of Yahoo users who weren't even suspected of terrorist activities, but also because its goal was to gather true "content" instead of the metadata collected by other programs.

The problem was exacerbated by the legality of the program. GCHQ is allowed to gather those images and use them for anything it likes so long as their subjects weren't in the British Isles at the time. The NSA is unlikely to face legal repercussions for this program, either, because it was specifically created to surveil foreign countries and defend the United States from threats. Because the agency isn't directly spying on American citizens -- and, more important to its overseers, politicians -- the program will probably be justified despite its privacy implications.

Some experts were previously convinced that gathering that information would prove too difficult for the NSA. This report shows that underestimating its capabilities, even when that is simple disbelief in the ability to record every phone call in an entire country, is inadvisable.

Reactions from around the Web

The Verge notes that American calls can be swept up in the NSA's net:

There's also reportedly no effort to filter out American calls caught in the dragnet, with any US numbers classified as 'acquired incidentally as a result of collection directed against appropriate foreign intelligence targets.'
The Wire points out that this program is the only one revealed so far to have started under the Obama administration:
According to the Post report, written by Barton Gellman and Ashkan Soltani, which combines confidential interviews with documents leaked by Edward Snowden, RETRO went into operation against an unidentified country in 2011. In other words: this program, unlikely many others, belongs solely to President Obama.
The Hill writes that the program stands in contrast to Obama's claims that the NSA wouldn't spy on foreign citizens in January:
The NSA would not, Obama suggested, spy on foreign citizens.

'Now let me be clear: our intelligence agencies will continue to gather information about the intentions of governments – as opposed to ordinary citizens – around the world, in the same way that the intelligence services of every other nation does,' he said in his speech in January. Gizmodo doesn't see an end to these revelations:

Unfortunately, there's no telling where it stops. At this point, each new NSA revelation seems worse than the last. According to the ACLU's chief technologist Chris Soghoian, what we've learned suggests that 'over the next couple of years [the NSA] will expand to more countries, retain data longer and expand the secondary uses.' And even more unfortunately, Obama's not doing much to stop them.
Pando weighs in

I wrote about a study from two Stanford graduate students that demonstrated the power of metadata earlier this month:

The study is another indictment of the United States government’s claims that gathering phone call metadata from millions of Americans is not an invasion of privacy. It doesn’t matter that no-one is listening to those phone calls. Unless the second most well-funded intelligence agency is less capable than two graduate students — which is doubtful, given its ability to surveil millions of people — metadata can be used to infer all kinds of information.
[illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]