Former FBI counterterrorism agent implies that US records all US phone calls

Glenn Greenwald notes the alarming revelation from a CNN Out Front interview between host Erin Burnett and Tim Clemente, "a former FBI counterterrorism agent," where Clemente claimed that the FBI had access to recordings of every phone call made in America:

BURNETT: Tim, is there any way, obviously, there is a voice mail they can try to get the phone companies to give that up at this point. It's not a voice mail. It's just a conversation. There's no way they actually can find out what happened, right, unless she tells them?

CLEMENTE: "No, there is a way. We certainly have ways in national security investigations to find out exactly what was said in that conversation. It's not necessarily something that the FBI is going to want to present in court, but it may help lead the investigation and/or lead to questioning of her. We certainly can find that out.

BURNETT: "So they can actually get that? People are saying, look, that is incredible.

CLEMENTE: "No, welcome to America. All of that stuff is being captured as we speak whether we know it or like it or not."

Are all telephone calls recorded and accessible to the US government? (via /.)


    1. “Is this surprising to anyone?”

      These are some of the most disheartening comments I hear in regards to abuses by the government.  The implied message is “Oh, well.  Not much we can do about it.”  Well, screw that.  We didn’t get to be America by saying “Oh, well.  We all know that we’re getting taxed without being represented.  Not much we can do about it.”

        1. 1) Leave
          2) Take the energy and enthusiasm displayed at the beginning of the Occupy Wall Street movement and somehow manage to make it last 10+ years, in every city with more than 100,000 residents in the country, to try and exert unprecedented pressure on the government to obey its people.
          3) Violent revolution and massive societal overhaul (* I am not advocating this position!!)
          4) Go dark with encryption and only use services that do not cooperate/are out of jurisdictional reach (not that that means anything, as Kim Dotcom knows) of the US judicial branch.

          One of these things is more simple than the others, but none of them are easy to accomplish. Such is the price of sleeping your way into a security state.

          1. I think we’ve already done that.  ; )  It reminds me of when I was a kid, a friend’s older brother tried to get me involved in The Hunger Project, I think it was called. Maybe he misunderstood the concept, I don’t know, but he told me we could solve world hunger just by being aware of it. That sounded fishy (teach a man to fish…) to me.

          2. The fascists who are one step away from world domination are going to cry if you call them a bad name.

        2. Form a new political party. More than a few of us realize that asshole’s “Welcome to America” is pure bullshit. People like him mean GOODBYE to America: THEY’re the freakin’ terrorists.

      1.  It was the rich guys who were being taxed and they were the ones who did something about it.  And what they did was to convince a bunch of poor folks that it would somehow be in their best interest to get themselves killed so that the rich guys’ taxes would go down a bit.

        There have never been any good guys.  Just bad guys and suckers.

  1. Eh, I call bullshit.  Asking how badly they would like to, or how would they try to, are very compelling questions.  But, it would be an awfully big secret/project/data trove to keep secret.  Also, I’m skeptical that the big reveal would be in the form of someone saying “all of that stuff” as a casual response to a question.

      1. They’re not recording audio. They’re recording phonetics – speech to text, in effect. There are dedicated ASICs that do nothing but drop voice audio through a transformation matrix and spit out a text, which can then later be used to reconstitute the speech audio, complete with stress markers, glottal clicks, all the features IPA encodes, and so on. It won’t be the original voice – it’ll be Victoria, or whatever voice the analysis tech assigns.
        They also do plain text semantic transcripts.
        That’s why the FBI wouldn’t want to bring it to court – it shows off their intercept dragnet tech and jurors would say, well, that’s just a computer doing text-to-speech.

        1. They would have to record the audio otherwise the resulting text will be virtually useless.  Think about how much of a botched up mess you have in a Google Voice or competing Speech to Text voicemail system, and they have a recording.  

          What you are describing is interesting and I don’t deny the technology exists, but anything worth acting upon is worth verifying, and the source material is imperative. Perhaps this source material is not retained for very long, which could help with the storage challenge, but a raw stream of phonetics sounds like a mess of false positives and missed opportunities.

          1. They’re not storing the audio. They’re recording and storing the phonetics of the speech, which can be used to reconstitute the speech, which can be turned back into audio. That’s how they solved the storage space problem.
            Commercial speech-to-natural-language-readable-text systems – like Dragon – or Google Voice – aim at producing something you can read. The difference with what the NSA / intelligence community has is that the phonetic transcript is meant to be analysed and interpreted by an E4 or E5 pay grade military specialist who can also do the transcription, and their incentive for not disclosing is the certainty that they’ll face what Bradley Manning’s endured, followed by a firing squad.

          2. But reducing the data in that way is very expensive in CPU time, and any application I can envisage would store the audio under light compression and transform it later.

          3. Aye this again witch yuleday, bot woodblight toothy fifth-four you grr-eat! two Sayed!

        2. Yeah, I def thought speech-to-text would be the only thing that would make the storage plausible, or search, or indexing for that matter.  But, then you’d still have a gargantuan processing issue I would bet.

          A good proxy might be to compare how many pages Google crawls per day vs. how many calls are made per day.  Something tells me the data created by daily calls (found an estimate of 1.2 billion CELL PHONE calls per day) would wildly out-size Google’s page indexing.  Plus, Google does a lot of lower load intensive “checking” before a full crawl ensues.

          1. Mostly if some phone call is “interesting”, it gets audio-recorded and forwarded to an analysis tech. If it’s “suspicious” then the audio / phonetic transcript are dumped into a speech-to-text sieve to see if then becomes “interesting”.
            They don’t search the phonetic transcripts. They’re certainly stored so they can be retrieved later, for the purposes of investigations. The record indexes are UUID, not a phone number or other Personal Identifier (PI), because recordings with PI of US citizens can’t legally be used by the Executive branch.

        3. Numbers are fun! Suppose they were storing the audio. For the sake of convenience let’s say they were recording in 160Kbps mp3s, which work out to just about 1Mb/audio minute.

          There are about 245 million people in the US over the age of 15. According to the Bureau of Labour Statistics Use of Time Survey, the average is about 6 minutes per day of phone conversation. So that’s 736 million minutes per day (since it’s one conversation for roughly every two people). Or 702Tb of new data every day. Or, if  you prefer, 256 petabytes of new data per year. About 13 times the total data stored by the Internet Archive. About 1280 times the amount of data indexed by Google.

          Speech to text it is.

          1. Intelligible speech audio can be recorded between 28k and 40k, often much less. Modern Cell phone ADC drop large portions of frequency bands and work at a maximum of 40kbps, and compress ridiculously. So, really, the hardware in digital phones does all the hard work for the intel community – distributed, in-silicon voice compression.

          2. Hell, even my numbers are out of date. Quick google search gets this CNN article:

            “While networks vary, they all compress phone calls into tiny digital streams, sacrificing sound quality to save network capacity. A typical call in the U.S. might use 8,000 bits per second of wireless capacity. The new HD systems springing up around the world typically boost that by 50%, to 12,000 bits per second. They also use better software to encode the human voice more cleverly, further helping preserve its fidelity. (So-called “adaptive multi-rate wideband technology” results in a broader range of audible frequencies; traditional landlines and cell phones clip off low tones below 300 hertz and high pitches above 3300 hertz. The current crop of HD phones double the frequency range.”

            That’s 5-10% of the figures you had used. So 15-25 petabytes per year, with an unknown retention span.

          3. That truly is scary. Of course that still leaves the question of processing and analysis, but I don’t know enough to even speculate on that front. Any thoughts on that side of the Big Brother-like process?

        4. doesn’t this make you wanna just throw in random red flag words in normal conversation:
          “so ma, how’s osama bin laden? have you bombed the pentagon yet? well nice jihading with you”
          just fit in words so their little machines that sort through this data spit out all sorts of false positives. get enough people doing that and their system becomes useless.

          1. Enough people would have to believe such a thing was technically plausible, legally plausible, and important enough to resist, to make a dent. Even then people would get tired of doing it, and you can’t exactly carry on a convo with the Ipswich office this way.

          2. Just imagine how keyword taggers must react to the average conversation between two 13-year-olds talking about Call of Duty.

          3. It’s not quite that simple, and I’ve waved the red cape at the NSA, CIA and FBI before in email.

            The NSA builds call trees of who’s calling whom, based on bad guy phone calls. If you’re not in a call tree, I think your chances of getting  flagged for using bait words is pretty low. Let’s put it this way – I’ve baited them before, recently, and I don’t appear to be on a no-fly list. All that being said, I’m certain I have an FBI file – prior military, etc.

      2.  Good luck processing all that raw voice data, then getting anything useful out of it, then following up on every conversation that mentions a trigger word, etc.

        1. I think the point instead is to be able to coerce cooperation with the authorities, should it ever be needed from you.  All they need to do is a quick search of your file, and see what arcane laws you might have broken.

        2. It’s not just words.  It’s phrases, who is calling whom, locations and word/phrase history combined with many other vectors including email, credit/financial info, etc., etc.

          No luck needed…

      3. my co-worker’s aunt makes $79 an hour on the computer. She has been unemployed for 9 months but last month her income was $12386 just working on the computer for a few hours. Read more on  Zap2­2­.c­om

    1. You are perhaps aware that a comfortable life with a $150,000 / year salary makes an attractive alternative to being blindfolded and thrown on a CIA boat in the Pacific for the remainder of your life, right?

    2.  I followed closely the info about the NSA room that was in a SF AT&T secret room. I’ve met both the lawyer on the case and the engineer who told us about this. I think people don’t understand the various ways to gather and process speech combined with the power of supercomputers. Sure it seems like a massive amount of data, but people speak really slowly relative to a computer and there is lots of dead time that can be removed that doesn’t have to be stored.
      I’ve worked with people on the cutting edge of technology 15 years ago and I’m seeing the results today, but I can tell you that what we see now, the people with big budgets and smart people (NSA) have is always about 5 years before the rest of us.

      You always hear what they are doing with supercomputers as, ‘modeling weather systems” or figuring out what happens in the second after the big bang. Why do they say that? Because it would make people uncomfortable if they know that supercomputers were being used to develop better ways to process billions of phone calls. Or develop new data compression algorithms that can put those calls in various storage media.

      Now, I don’t know any of this for SURE, but if you bother to follow things like who the NSA hires and in what areas of expertise you can get an idea where they going.

      1. Look, I dunno about the phone calls, but they are actually modeling the weather systems and the big bang. That’s not something you should put in sarcastic quotes like it isn’t real research really being done with supercomputers. 

        1.  That’s just what they want you to believe, it’s really a super-computer deigned to mimic a super-computer modelling weather systems and the big bang. Being 5 years ahead they already know what the weather will be on Tuesday so it’s easy.

        2.  Sorry for the scare quotes. Yes, they are doing that work, what I’m trying to point out is that those problems are the safe work that they can talk about.

          There are all sorts of classified work being done on Supercomputers nobody will ever talk about, and the NSA is doing a lot of it. When you have a big problem and can throw a lot of petaflops at it the solutions won’t necessarily be made available to the public
           1) You want to keep it as a strategic secret
          2) Some in the
          public won’t like knowing the truth. A petaflop is a measure of a computer’s processing speed and can
          be expressed as a thousand trillion floating point operations per
          second.I know this because I’ve worked with the people who sold Supercomputers. They want to brag about the amazing things it is being used for, but they can’t.

          1. “That project, due in 2013, will upgrade the Jaguar XT5 into an XK6, codenamed Titan, upping its speed to 10 to 20 petaflops.”

  2. This is easy to test.  Get a couple burner phones (I watched The Wire!), have a phone conversation that the FBI simply can’t ignore, and wait to see if the black helicopters show up.

  3. The source: 
    *Former* FBI counterterrorism agent — maybe he just doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

    1. I imagine the NSA people watching this and chuckling: “Bitch, you have no idea what you’re talking about.”

      If anyone’s archiving every phone call we make, it’s No Such Agency, not the FBI.

    2. Exactly.

      These guys, like Richard Clarke, are always making up threats and technology claims to drum up consulting business for themselves.

      We know that Clarke hasn’t got a clue about real Cybersecurity threats, as in attacks on Windows are attacks on us all.

      My take is that the telcos do store the call logs for months, because billing.  They don’t store the actual calls.

    3. You might be right. It seems the FBI only has attractive agents, and the guy in that picture is one ugly sum’bitch.

  4. I know a few retired Federal LE employees.  The one I know the best also believed that there was widespread automated monitoring of telephone conversations for certain key phrases (e.g. presidential threats), and this was before they retired in 2001, before September 11.

    If you want to know where this has developed, good keywords to search would be Narus and CALEA.

  5. If they can do this, is there any point, as anyone sharing secrets via the phone is likely to speak in riddles and code. 

    1. You mean like the numbers stations and using one way pads for encryption? That’s hard work.

      But criminals still steal iPhones…

      Most idiots, uh, criminals, are lazy/stupid or else they’d find something more profitable to occupy their time.

      1. I was thinking more along the lines of, “The groceries will be delivered tomorrow.” :D

        1.  A passing acquaintance with black markets, etc. has taught me that all you’ll hear on the phone of anyone halfway competent is stuff like ‘did you get that thing?’, and ‘You know what we talked about? It’s sorted, aye?’ Though I have met a LOT of idiots so paranoid about people ‘listening in’ to their phone calls (i.e. people so insignificant that NO-ONE would tap their phones), who have gotten themselves jail-time because they’d rather communicate via text, and a simple stop & search and a poke around in their (un-password-protected) smartphone by an enterprising uniform officer revealed the level of their dimness. Seriously.

    2.  We’ll ireway you the oneymay on useday-tay. Ideway the ombays in your asementbay.

    3. I developed a code as a kid that I honestly don’t think anyone could break. It’s not match-based, it’s not even really language-based. The only problem is that once the secret got out, the code would be dead.  ; )

  6. Yes, but if we *believe* we’re being recorded, that can have a huge effect, even if every conversation is not really stored in some “national database” of conversations. When I was young enough to believe that my parents had ways of knowing when I was lying (versus the obvious, which is that I am really bad at lying) it made a difference to whether I considered un-truths.

    Of course, that kind of psychology won’t do a thing to actual bad-people, but a compliant populace is its own reward (to the cops).

    I specifically say “national database” because of the gun control conversation where pro-gun folks are so worried about that “national database”. I wonder how the 2nd amendment defenders feel about other kinds of lists and surveillance? Will they worry as much about a potential list of people who say “Allah” or “jihad” or “May Day” or “Occupy” as they are about a list of guns/owners?

  7. It’s odd – no edit buttons available on my post. I meant to add that I think it’s possible if someone had been under FBI scrutiny at some point that ongoing recording of phone calls could have been put in place, to ‘keep an eye’ on the person?

  8. This is both possible and plausible, but I can speak to at least this: I worked scheduling repair visits for [Very Large Phone Company] part-time from 1998-2001, and when the police occasionally called us directly asking for things like recordings, we told them that VLPC didn’t record phone calls, only the dialing, etc, and that they should reach out to corporate security.

    True? I don’t know, but think of the immense amount of computing it would take to make this happen.

    1. The immense amount of computing is distributed in every cell phone in the world – analog-digital converters that compress audio streams into 8kbits per second packets do the heavy lifting on compression before it’s ever transmitted and intercepted.

      There’s also the fact that most people have absolutely no idea what is in the silicon inside their phones, because auditing that requires destructive testing and esoteric-even-for-chip-engineers reverse engineering skills.

  9. “If you don’t have anything to hide, what are you afraid of?” What the refrain I heard when some people found out that there was provision for this in the Patriot Act.

    So what’s the big deal unless you are planning on being a terrorist? Even those of you protesting this are suspect! /sarcasm

    1. Everybody who has ever said this should be forced to shower and change clothes outdoors forever.  And be mocked.

      1. I had someone just drop the old “nothing to hide” trope on me yesterday.  I would be fine with that person being forced to go round nude in public.

    2. I used to be (along with all my friends and roommates) under close surveillance by the FBI. One of my roommates eventually got his not-too-badly redacted file. They couldn’t even figure out that we were queer. Which I have to tell you, everyone else in the neighborhood, from the toddlers on up, could have told you.

      They’re quite capable of ignoring someone holding a bundle of dynamite while they chase down their vegan support group suspect.

      1. This ^.  I think we assign way too much intelligence to the intelligence community.  They don’t know their asses from their elbows.  Good intel is hard to find.  They may be *trying* to record and transcribe all telephone calls, and they may eventually *claim* that’s what they are up to.  But it’s probably swiss-cheese. 

        1. Personally, I’m more afraid of a dumb intel person than I am a smart one. A smart one will (hopefully) use the information for its intended purpose. A dumb one, god know how that person would use the information.

          1. I disagree. Any intelligent person is just much, much smarter at doing dumb things.

      2. My memory fails me sometimes, but I remember reading in the last month or so about some law enfarcement (not a type) agency categorizing a black college as a subversive organization. I forgot all the details, but I think there was some connection with one of the three-letter agencies. It was an example of how information and reporting could be abused.

        1.  ‘Queer’ has, thankfully, lost most of its pejorative edge, and I’m not sure that it could ever have been used to describe Hoover. ‘Fucking weird’, however…

    3. The way I look at it is… what did the Jews in Germany have to worry about in 1932? (Thanks Godwin.) We may not be “afraid” of it now, but what if they start passing laws that make us criminals just by going about our daily business? What if you’re working for a company that’s competing with another company that has its corporate hands down the crotch of a politician? Then maybe working for that competitor may not be such a safe thing. That’s an extreme example, but Arbeit Macht Frei…

  10. Does that include 1-900 and 976 numbers Mr. FBI Man?

    Also, why would they use such a tool on this, a domestic crime/conspiracy over the wife of a dead suspect?

    And what direction beyond questioning the lady over what was said in the conversation, could having a record of the conversation itself indicate? If they know already to whom she spoke?

    People are making some serious $bank$ on this Boston incident.

    Wish I were an ex-LEO, buy a suit, agree to say any old shit, bang-on.

  11. Seriously? He’s claiming that they record over 42 million hours of audio per day. Using standard compression that’s over 6000 terabytes per day. Someone else can figure out how much computing power would be required to turn that into text, but I call BS.

    1. See “Hell, even my numbers are out of date. “, above. 15-25 PB a year. That’s not even turning it into human-readable text – they can process it into a phonetic transcript.

    2. “Asked how many communications—’transactions,’ in NSA’s lingo—the agency has intercepted since 9/11, Binney estimates the number at ‘between 15 and 20 trillion, the aggregate over 11 years.’”
      The article ( was written a little over a year ago, by the same guy that wrote The Shadow Factory.

      “…the Pentagon is attempting to expand its worldwide communications network, known as the Global Information Grid, to handle yottabytes (1024 bytes) of data. (A yottabyte is a septillion bytes—so large that no one has yet coined a term for the next higher magnitude.)”

  12. According to the transcript, they’re talking about phone calls she made AFTER her husband was a known suspect in the bombings and the FBI was looking for him. It would surprise me to find that the US government is monitoring everybody’s calls all of the time. It would not at all surprise me to find that the US government is (possibly illegally) monitoring the phone of a woman whose husband has just been outed as suspect number 1 in a terrorist attack. 

    Why does the fact that they have the ability to go back and review calls made during a time when she would have been of interest to the FBI inherently mean that all calls are being monitored all the time, no matter who you are or when?

    1.  It’s targeted.  It has to be.  I doubt they have revisionist terrorist watch lists, as in: a new name gets added, go back to the archives and pull all their past phone calls.  I bet it’s accumulative in nature.  It’s more like: get added to the watch list -> henceforth calls are recorded. 

      1. Yep, targeted, based quite a bit on call trees. The foot-terrorist is connected to the ankle-terrorist (and the pizza shop and the Chinese restaurant and the sex line), the ankle-terrorist is connected to the leg-terrorist (and the wrong number and the weather line), etc.

        Heck, if a bad guy dials your number by mistake, you’re (semi) screwed.

    2. Monitoring or collecting? They’re collecting all the time, but monitoring very little of it. You should dig deep into the subject, I mean really deep. You’ll laugh at the ineptitude, you’ll want to cry at the sheer disregard for Constitutional law, you’ll be angry at the attitude they take, and you’ll want to rearrange the faces of the leaders of big business who are abetting all this.

  13. You’re all assuming that these phone calls are all perpetually stored as quality sound.

    The vast majority of these recordings can be thrown away after speech to text translation (however imperfect,) while items of interest are extracted from the swamp of irrelevancy before the recording space is reused.

    That means a voice data sampling and recording center would need far less storage than is being estimated.

    1. Useless systems, all of them! Do not answer in the voice of Majel Barrett. Can’t even make a decent cup of Earl Grey.

  14. We can get out of our heads that these surveillance systems are about fighting terrorists or stopping crime.  They’re not.  It’s about protecting the interests of the United States government and business elite.  The people that run this country and economy do not want their interests affected by the democratic aspirations of the nation’s citizens.  They will go to great lengths to prevent honest, hard working people for attaining their just wage and democratic control over national decisions.

  15. You shouldn’t be surprised that they can get any call they need. The National Security Agency is building (or has built) a huge data warehousing facility near Salt Lake City. Wired Magazine has a great write-up about it.

    Most telephone traffic is now handled by fiber optic, and very little is handled by satellite. Nearly all the world’s telephone and Internet traffic passes through the U.S. A call from a party in Pakistan to another caller in Pakistan may very well pass through the U.S. Traffic is routed the cheapest way it can go, and when it’s daytime there, it’s night here, where rates are lower. The NSA has intercept stations at most or all of the facilities that this traffic passes through. It’s a partnership with business that was spawned in hell, and it’s 100% illegal (but the legality doesn’t matter these days, does it?)

    So yes, pretty much everything you say or type, if it goes out through the super duper network, is going to get skimmed up and stored. They may never access it, but they’ll always have it.

    Read The Shadow Factory, about the NSA right before and since 9/11. You may also want to check out Three Felonies a Day. I haven’t read that one yet – it’s in my stack – but the premise is that the feds have stacked the system against the average person and as a result we commit, on average… well, you know the rest.

    In all seriousness, if I could move out of the country, I would. I love my country and I wish I could do something to change all this, but I’m afraid that it’s too late.

    Switzerland sounds nice.

  16.  Michael Smith

    “That project, due in 2013, will upgrade the Jaguar XT5 into an XK6, codenamed Titan, upping its speed to 10 to 20 petaflops.”

  17. The funny thing is that the actual dangerous calls are probably taking place outside the USA… 

  18. I’m not scared because it’s not even remotely possible. And then if it was, the volume of information collected would render it’s collecting useless.

  19. Apple and Google store Siri and Google Voice search queries for up to 2 years.
    Obviously there are more phone conversations than Siri and Google queries, but I still don’t see it as being implausible for an organisation as large and rich as the US government to get the storage that would be needed…

    If we do some basic math. 12 hours of 24kbps MP3 audio is 130mb.
    For the US population of 311 million, if every person speaks 12 hours a day, you need 38 260 terrabytes per day.
    And if we assume that every person speaks about 6 hours a day, it’s 19 130 terrabytes.

    Thats 4800 4TB hard drives per day. And that’s still assuming that every single person in the US talks for 6 hours a day.
    Say they store it for a month, that’s 150 000 hard drives.
    At a retail price of about 100 US dollars per drive, it comes to a total of 15 million US dollars. A drop in the ocean of counterterrorism spending.

    Technology is not the issue here.

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