NSA records millions of French phone calls, according to report

A couple weeks back, Edward Snowden conduit Glenn Greenwald promised further NSA revelations to do with France and Spain. Well, here’s half that promise fulfilled: on Monday Le Monde published a piece (co-authored by Greenwald) stating that the NSA recorded 70.3 million phone calls in France between 10 December 2012 and 8 January 2013.

This espionage apparently takes place under a program called US-985D. Here’s how Le Monde characterized the operation:

“According to the elements obtained by Le Monde, when a telephone number is used in France, it activates a signal which automatically triggers the recording of the call. Apparently this surveillance system also picks up SMS messages and their content using key words. Finally, the NSA apparently stores the history of the connections of each target — or the meta-data…

“The documents which Le Monde has been able to see have not enabled the provision of further details on these methods. But they give sufficient explanation to lead us to think that the NSA targets concerned both people suspected of association with terrorist activities as well as people targeted simply because they belong to the worlds of business, politics or French state administration.”

Perhaps another indication of economic espionage there. However, it’s not 100 percent clear from the article whether all those 70.3 million records are actual voice recordings, or whether some were just metadata (the connections, rather than the content).

It’s not implausible that these are proper voice recordings — let’s make a quick, utterly unscientific calculation. The average mobile call these days is around 1 minute 40 seconds long, while I’d imagine fixed-line calls are generally longer, so let’s imagine an average call length of 2.5 minutes or 150 seconds. 2G voice calls have a 13Kbps bitrate and there are 8 bits in a byte, so each call would be 150 x 13 x 8 = 15,600KB. Multiply that by 70.3 million and you have somewhere around one terabyte, which wouldn’t actually be that much, even if it is just for France.

But that, of course, is not the point. What is the point is that we’re looking at large-scale recording and scanning of actual voice calls, not just metadata, which is a very handy surveillance tool in itself. And what’s more, this is being done to the U.S.’s “strongest ally“.

Accordingly, the outraged French government has summoned the U.S. ambassador to explain what’s happening. How real is that outrage? Well, it’s worth recalling an earlier Le Monde scoop from July, which showed the French intelligence agency DGSE has its own PRISM-like scheme for monitoring the country’s citizens.

That said, I’d quote F-Secure chief technology officer Mikko Hypponen here to say that “if we really need a big brother, I’d much rather have a domestic big brother than a foreign big brother” – after all, a citizen of France may possible get some recourse in the case of being spied upon by French intelligence, but doesn’t have a hope of being heard if it’s the Americans doing the listening.

Speaking of which, the NSA also just won renewal for its own program of warrantlessly recording all Americans’ phone metadata. So far, there has been no grand revelation of voice calls being recorded en masse in the U.S., although whistleblowers have suggested as much in the past.