Contrary to what many news outlets have been saying, and many experts have been assuring Americans of, the National Security Agency does indeed have the ability to pull up the entire audio of your phone calls and listen to them whenever they please.
When news of the MYSTIC and RETRO programs first broke, thanks to the leaks of Edward Snowden, experts told the American people that all the NSA had on anyone was “metadata”. the particulars of when, where, and to whom calls were placed.
But a report published this week in the Washington Post shows that the NSA has far greater spying capability than that.
The report describes a system that can record 100% of a country’s phone calls, then reach “into the past” to listen to any phone call they choose, even if it was something that they had passed by in earlier investigations.
The tool is a part of the MYSTIC program and goes by the name RETRO. According to the Post report, it became operational in 2011 and targeted one country as an initial capability test. At the request of the U.S. government, the Post did not reveal which country that was.
The report further reveals that the material collected by the program is “without discriminants”, that is to say, it does not target particular persons. Rather it “vacuums up” all the calls in a given country, putting them into what is currently described as a rolling 30-day buffer, giving the U.S. a month to go back and listen to whatever they want to.
The ability of the U.S. to potentially listen in on any conversation it wants to, anywhere in the world, has raised alarms across the globe. It is an issue that both political parties in the U.S. are concerned about, as well as foreign governments that are concerned that this ultimate spying skill gives the U.S. the ability to corner almost any concern that normally would have been open to diplomatic channels. What good is it to negotiate with someone who already knows everything you know?
President Obama has signed executive orders, ostensibly limiting what the NSA can collect and do with what it collects. But these measures are cold comfort to people who see the revelations brought by Snowden’s leaks as the beginning of a new era in which no one can be trusted and everyone is being watched.
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