The program is called MYSTIC and it was launched in 2009. Its RETRO tool reached its full capacity against the first target country in 2011. The system gathers “every single” telephone call nationwide and store it in a 30-day rolling buffer. The oldest call is then replaced by the newest one. This allows specialist to retrieve a necessary audio, analyze it and send its fragment for a long-term storage.
No other NSA program disclosed to date has swallowed a nation’s telephone network whole. In his January speech President Obama claimed that this bulk method of capturing data flows doesn’t use discriminants. Thus, the most of the collected information is irrelevant for the US. In fact, the capability of the method is highly valuable.
Caitlin Hayden, spokeswoman for the National Security Council, said that this is a necessary method of providing the national security. “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,” she said.
The documents, provided by Snowden say that the program may be extended to other countries, if it hasn’t been already. Last year’s secret intelligence budget showed more countries for which the MYSTIC system provides “comprehensive metadata access and content.”
The program gathers data of those American, who leave in the target countries as well. The fact denies Obama’s statement “that the United States is not spying on ordinary people who don’t threaten our national security,” regardless of nationality, “and that we take their privacy concerns into account.”
President Obama instructed the NSA and other agencies that bulk acquisition may be used only to gather information on one of six specified threats, including nuclear proliferation and terrorism. The directive, however, also noted that limits on bulk collection “do not apply to signals intelligence data that is temporarily acquired to facilitate targeted collection.”
In order “to cope with the vast increases in digital data that have accompanied the rise of the global network” the US has build a new repository in Utah. Christopher Soghoian, the principal technologist for the American Civil Liberties Union, thinks that in the upcoming years the NSA will retain data longer.
NSA spokeswoman Vanee Vines assures that MYSTIC is strictly conducted under Executive Order 12333, the traditional grant of presidential authority to intelligence agencies for operations outside the United States.
Some legislators are now considering whether Congress should draft new laws to govern intelligence operations. Experts agree with them, saying that there is not much legislation that governs overseas intelligence work.
Beginning in 2007, Congress loosened 40-year-old restrictions on domestic surveillance because so much foreign data crossed US territory. There were no comparable changes to protect the privacy of US citizens and residents whose calls and e-mails now routinely cross international borders.