While the announcement that the NSA collected records of "every call placed on the Verizon communications network (and, it appears, every other U.S. phone carrier)", Foreign Policy explains how this "grave violation of privacy" keeps American citizens "safe from terrorism."
We start with a classic scenario. U.S. intelligence officials have captured an al Qaeda operative and obtained the phone number of an al Qaeda fundraiser in Yemen.
You are an analyst for a fictionalized version of the NSA, and you have been authorized to search through metadata in order to expose the fundraiser's network, armed with only a single phone number as a starting point.
The first step is refreshingly simple: You type the fundraiser's phone number into the metadata analysis software and click OK.
In our example data, the result is a list of 79 phone numbers that were involved in an incoming or outgoing call with the fundraiser's phone within the last 30 days. The fundraiser is a covert operator and this phone is dedicated to covert activities, so almost anyone who calls the number is a high-value target right out of the gate.
Using the metadata, we can weight each phone number according to the number of calls it was involved in, the lengths of the calls, the location of the other participant, and the time of day the call was placed. Your NSA training manual claims these qualities help indicate the threat level of each participant. Your workstation renders these data as a graph. Each dot represents a phone number, and the size of the dot is bigger when the number scores higher on the "threat" calculus.
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