The Science of What Is and Isn't Happening with the NSA's Phone Surveillance

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Editor's Note: If you have not yet made Charlie Martin one of your regular, Read-Everything-They-Write authors, then I submit this article from him for your consideration. Over the past 6 months Charlie has emerged as one of PJ Lifestyle's most engaging, intelligent contributors. His 13 Weeks Self-Improvement Experiment is giving birth to a movement. What began as Charlie trying various methods to improve his health so he could live longer has now set the theme for each Saturday with Sarah Hoyt, me, and, beginning this Saturday, Rhonda Robinson also following his lead. So I've asked Charlie to start writing more on other subjects too. In addition to his 13 Weeks reports on Saturdays, also tune in each Sunday for his Buddhism reflections and Thursdays for his science geek articles. This is the first in his science series and I can't wait to see what he comes up with next.

David Swindle


So, there's this NSA thing. Since the stories about the NSA, Edward Snowden, PRISM, and so on have broken, there has been more misinformation, disinformation, bad information, speculation, ignorant commentary and flat out nonsense going around than any topic in recent memory. And to tell you the truth, I've been working on this article for two weeks and never finishing because there is always one more howler. Let's see if we can clear some of this up.

One of the things I'm going to complain about, by the way, is the number of authoritative opinions being offered by people who clearly don't actually know much more about it than what they've read from other people's poorly informed speculation. Someone might reasonably then ask why they should believe me? Especially since recently I seem to have been mainly a diet and health blogger. So let's just summarize.

I started working on defense systems in the late 70s, when I got a polygraph clearance -- an "EBI," or "extended background check" clearance -- and went to work on some very sensitive stuff and no I can't tell you what even today. But I've spent a fair bit of time overseas, "covert" under the law that Valerie Plame certainly wasn't covert under, and I've worked directly with both the CIA and the NSA on many occasions.

Then when I went to graduate school, I got involved in DARPA-funded security research, where I came up with the original architecture for a highly secure version of the X windowing system, and helped write the Navy's handbook for evaluating secure and trusted systems under the old DoD TCSEC -- the "Orange Book." I've been a security subject matter expert on projects for Sun Microsystems, StorageTek, the Navy, and a half-dozen major banks and Wall Street firms, and I've got about a dozen patents either issued or in process, many of them having to do with security "in the cloud," cryptography, and Big Data.

Basically, secure systems, cryptography, and Big Data have been my day job for most of the time since about 1979.