Vail Valley, Big Brother is listening | VailDaily.com
YOUR AD HERE »

Vail Valley, Big Brother is listening

Bill Sepmeier
Vail, CO, Colorado
newsroom@vaildaily.com

If you watch television or follow the news online, you know that former National Security Agency analyst Russell Tice, who helped expose the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping in December 2005, has now come forward with even more detailed allegations.

Tice told MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann that the programs that spied on Americans were not only much broader than previously acknowledged but specifically targeted journalists.

“The National Security Agency had access to all Americans’ communications ” faxes, phone calls and their computer communications,” Tice claimed Wednesday on MSNBC. “It didn’t matter whether you were in Kansas, in the middle of the country and you never made foreign communications at all. They monitored all communications.”



My close friends around the valley probably weren’t as shocked by these statements as some people, since I’ve told them this for years. You see, I know the fellow who invented the technology that all modern NSA surveillance depends on: speaker-independent content recognition and its complement, speaker-dependent voice recognition.

He’s one of the smartest and kindest people I’ve ever met. His name is Leon Ferber, and you’ll find out far less about him than you will about most pre-teenagers if you Google his name, even though he holds basic patents on many technologies we all use. He’s called the “father of voice mail” in the one or two things you’ll find online ” but by mentioning Leon in an article that will also appear online, I’m probably on a list now myself.



Leon’s the guy who, with a partner, figured out how to teach computers to recognize not only your voice and understand everything you say but to understand any voice speaking any language, to recognize what’s being said and to take actions based upon what it is listening to. Once you understand the basics of this technology, the engineering of its deployment becomes obvious.

Do you have a cell phone with “hands-free” dialing that when you say, “Call home,” it does? A car, like my Prius, that turns on the radio or the GPS navigation or adjusts the heat simply with a spoken command? That’s speaker-independent voice recognition. It doesn’t care who you are; computers using the software can recognize words from male or female speakers, young or old, speaking in any language or with any accent.

Leon invented it ” now hang on, you probably weren’t born yet ” back in 1964, under contract to, who else? The National Security Agency. The NSA wanted to be able to monitor all international telephone calls and when certain “key words” were detected, automatically record those calls for later analysis. Back in 1964. Civil libertarians might find some relief that Leon told me his partner had a new baby who was better at speaker and voice recognition five years later than his early computers were. But computers have come a long way.



I met Leon in the early 1990s, when computers were far more powerful than in the ’60s, and he was the chairman of a company called Perception Technology in Canton, Mass. (a division of Brite Voice Systems of Topeka, Kan., these days). Perception Tech was then using Leon’s speech-recognition algorithms back in the late 1980s to run a “talking yellow pages” service for telephone companies worldwide, and they bought a satellite network from me that was used to distribute content into these far-flung computer voice-response terminals.

Since all telephone network traffic has been digital for years, a technology that can monitor every call and select those “of interest,” not only by using the metadata ” the calling and called numbers and even GPS location data from modern cell phones, for example ” but by recognizing both an individual’s voice or specific words or phrases spoken by any voice that are considered “key” to some investigation by the agencies sharing this data collection with the NSA, would be and was easy to overlay on top of the aggregate telephone traffic.

All one had to do was split the massive digital streams and feed a mirror of the aggregate data stream into NSA supercomputers, which could then actually listen for key words spoken by anyone in any language or detect specific individuals’ voice patterns, as well as monitor all of the metadata to collect call information.

If the phrase “the toothbrush is in the mailbox” was thought to be a code phrase that the NSA thought meant “the cocaine has been received,” for example, the NSA’s machines would flag any call containing this phrase.

All calls are recorded in a buffer, so even if the phrase came a minute or two into a call, the entire conversation could be saved from the buffer into longer-term storage. Metadata ” the calling and called numbers and other information ” were correlated with the call to identify the participants. If, after further analysis, these people discussing toothbrushes and mailboxes were deemed of real interest, the system would recognize their individual voices every time they spoke into a telephone, no matter where it was.

A phone booth, an anonymous “pre-paid” throwaway cell phone, a friend’s line ” it doesn’t matter. The speaker-independent content-recognition technology that caught the original phrase and the speaker-dependent voice-recognition technology, trained to recognize the caller’s voice print based on the original call, will recognize those voices from then on, no matter where on earth these people speak into a telephone.

The trick ” the big secret ” is the absolute requirement and capability to monitor literally everything. The NSA and National Reconnaissance Office evidently have been, according to Mr. Tice and others, for a long, long time. Monitoring, combing and filtering everything is, in fact, the only way these automated intelligence systems can actually operate. Between fiber-optic mirroring and satellite look-down monitoring of all wireless activity, there’s little that slips the net nowadays.

Internet and e-mail communications are far more simple to process than voice communications. Again, all the digital traffic is split at cooperating telephone company central switch points (using equipment you pay for every month in your phone bill, by the way), and a mirror feed is again provided to the government.

NSA computers can “read” everything in real time, again flagging traffic containing certain key words, phrases or to and from certain Internet IP addresses or user login names and correlating all of this data to the people sending and receiving it.

Those “lost” White House e-mails? Nothing’s “lost” these days unless someone orders it to be lost.

The data accumulated is mindboggling and beyond vast, but it is not beyond today’s technology, which can easily store a terabyte (a million megabytes) in a hand-held notebook PC. Remember, while everything is recorded into a buffer, not every word is stored forever. Only the material of interest, which then identifies persons who may be of interest, since they said something of interest, is kept. Or communications of people of interest for any other reason. There are many, many layers of entry and escalation to and in this system.

It’s obvious when you understand the network architecture that it is simply impossible to obtain a warrant to “tap someone’s phone” anymore. Today, all phones are tapped all of the time. Warrants, such as the one used to catch Elliot Spitzer the day before he exposed the ongoing fraud on Wall Street in a Washington Post op-ed ” the “meltdown” that we all know about now ” was probably obtained using information already in hand from other “warrantless taps.”

There’s a reason why the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Court is a “secret court” and why the Bush administration ignored it anyway. The scope of the operation was and is simply too vast to entrust to too many people.

Recently it has been reported that U.S. spy agencies’ sensitive data will soon be linked by Google-like search systems. Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell has launched a sweeping technology program to knit together the thousands of databases across all 16 spy agencies. Intelligence analysts will be able to search through secret intelligence files the same way they can search public data on the Internet.

You and I have no idea what’s contained in these databases, nor will we ever know. Your “big brothers” will know, and they will be able to share it instantly.

Soon, much of the federal government will have instant access to every aspect of your life: your e-mail, all of the photos you’ve uploaded to have printed for pickup at the local Target or Wal-Mart, every Web site you’ve ever built or even visited, every search term you’ve ever typed into Google and, if you seem interesting, every telephone call you place or receive from any telephone anywhere on earth. And a lot more data ” your credit transactions, if you pay bills online, plus your banking information. Every aspect of your online or electronic life is an open book to those with the right “library card.”

So thanks, Leon. It’s probably good that Google and the rest of the Internet seem to have scrubbed you from most of the public databases because once people figure out what’s really been done with “your baby,” you’ll need the anonymity.

Bill Sepmeier is a longtime Eagle County resident.


Support Local Journalism