Report of call database sharpens focus on surveillance

If a U.S. government spy agency is indeed amassing a colossal database of Americans' phone records, as was reported Thursday, one way to use all that information is in "social network analysis," a data-mining method that aims to expose previously invisible connections among people.

Social network analysis has gained prominence in business and intelligence circles under the belief that it can yield extraordinary insights, such as the fact that people in disparate organizations have common acquaintances.

Versions of the technology power friend-of-a-friend networking Web sites. Companies can buy social networking software to help determine who has the best connections for a particular sales pitch. In an influential 2002 project, a researcher applied network analysis to public information to map the organizational methods of the Sept. 11 hijackers.

So it did not surprise many security analysts to learn Thursday from USA Today that the National Security Agency is applying the technology to billions of phone records.

"Who you're talking to often matters much more than what you're saying," said Bruce Schneier, a computer security expert and author of "Beyond Fear: Thinking Sensibly About Security in an Uncertain World."

But he and other experts said it would be naive to think the NSA is content to assemble such a picture only from landline phone records. Other forms of communication, including cell phone calls, e-mails and instant messages, likely are trackable targets as well.

To be sure, monitoring newer communications services is probably harder than simply getting billing records from landline phones. USA Today reported Thursday that the NSA has collected call logs from the three largest U.S. phone companies, BellSouth Corp., AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc.

That level of cooperation confirmed the fears of many privacy analysts, who pointed out that AT&T is already being sued in federal court in San Francisco for allegedly giving the NSA access to contents of its phone and Internet networks. The charges are based on documents from a former AT&T technician.

It remains unclear whether other communications providers have been asked for their call logs or billing records.

Only Verizon Wireless spokesman Jeffrey Nelson definitively said his company was "not involved in this situation." His counterparts at Cingular an AT&T/BellSouth joint venture and Sprint Nextel Corp. were less explicit and did not deny any participation.

Even without cell phone carriers' help, of course, calls between wireless subscribers and Verizon, AT&T and BellSouth landlines presumably would be captured, reports AP.


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