A new Snowden leak reveals that all the voice calls in an unnamed country are recorded and saved for 30 days on a rolling basis, with millions of voice "cuts" (clippings) harvested from the corpus for long-term storage by the system. The system, called MYSTIC, has been running since 2009, and its search tool, RETRO, has been fully operational against a whole country's phone calls since 2011.
President Obama has stated that " the United States is not spying on ordinary people who don't threaten our national security" — this is a hard statement to square with the idea of recording all the voice calls made in an entire country.
The Washington Post article detailing the programs states at least five more countries are now covered by MYSTIC, with a sixth coming online.
The emblem of the MYSTIC program depicts a cartoon wizard with a telephone-headed staff. Among the agency's bulk collection programs disclosed over the past year, its focus on the spoken word is unique. Most of the programs have involved the bulk collection of either metadata — which does not include content — or text, such as e-mail address books.
Telephone calls are often thought to be more ephemeral and less suited than text for processing, storage and search. Indeed, there are indications that the call-recording program has been hindered by the NSA's limited capacity to store and transmit bulky voice files.
In the first year of its deployment, a program officer wrote that the project "has long since reached the point where it was collecting and sending home far more than the bandwidth could handle."
Because of similar capacity limits across a range of collection programs, the NSA is leaping forward with cloud-based collection systems and a gargantuan new "mission data repository" in Utah. According to its overview briefing, the Utah facility is designed "to cope with the vast increases in digital data that have accompanied the rise of the global network."
NSA surveillance program reaches 'into the past' to retrieve, replay phone calls [Barton Gellman and Ashkan Soltani/Washington Post]