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Why is the Massive Military Domestic Spying Program called CO-TRAVELER?

Yes, military. Let us not forget that the National Security Agency is a branch of the U.S. military.

You’ve already learned, thanks to the revelation by the Washington Post today, that the most massively armed military on the planet has been collecting tracking information on the whereabouts of hundreds of millions of innocent people, day after day after day, by hijacking their cell phone location data.

The program is called CO-TRAVELER. Why?

An academic paper I stumbled over a few days ago in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences provides a clue. David Crandall and a number of co-authors (2010) report success in in determining which Flickr users have personal relationships with one another by simply looking for pairs of accounts whose photographs occur at the same time and place over and over again. The insight of “geographic homophily” from network sociology explains why this works: ties form among people who are proximate to one another in space, and proximity is also a consequence of preexisting ties.

Imagine the same trick, but instead of photographs, geocodes and time-stamps are provided by cell phones.

Imagine data like this (binary data in which 1 means that a person can be tracked to a particular location at a particular time, and in which 0 means that the person cannot be tracked to a particular location at a particular time):

Tracking Location 1 Location 2 Location 3 Location 4 Location 5
Person 1 1 0 1 0 0
Person 2 0 1 1 0 0
Person 3 1 0 1 1 1
Person 4 1 0 1 0 0
Person 5 0 0 0 0 0
Person X 1 1 1 1 1

That data can be converted (thanks to a matrix manipulation identified by sociologist Ronald Brieger in 1974) into information describing the overlap between two people in place and time.  In the processed matrix below, the number in each cell represents the number of times and places in which two people’s locations overlap:

Overlap Person 1 Person 2 Person 3 Person 4 Person 5 Person X
Person 1 1 2 2 0 2
Person 2 1 1 1 0 2
Person 3 2 1 2 0 4
Person 4 2 1 2 0 2
Person 5 0 0 0 0 0
Person X 2 2 4 2 0

Who in the above table is most likely to have a social connection to Person X?  Person 3, because Person 3 has the most overlaps in time and place with Person X.

Now imagine that the most powerful military in the world has decided to run this kind of analysis to find all the people who are most likely to have a social connection with Person X.  Perhaps Person X is a suspected terrorist.  Perhaps Person X is a suspected criminal.  Perhaps Person X is a person who has been identified in previous surveillance as possibly being a person who knows a suspected terrorist or criminal. Perhaps Person X just says things that the National Security Agency doesn’t like.  Using this technique, NSA military spies can track down most of Person X’s friends and add them to the list of suspicious persons to be further tracked. Without a warrant.  Without probable cause.

Now imagine that this analysis can draw on a database of 5 billion phone location records scooped up every single day to carry out such an analysis.

That’s CO-TRAVELER.

4 comments to Why is the Massive Military Domestic Spying Program called CO-TRAVELER?

  • Thanks for the info Jim. That is extremely interesting.

  • Tom

    So they’re tracking a lot of kids (who talk the most and use cell phones most frequently), moms, businesses, etc. I think they’re wasting our money and their time with this program, since it hasn’t protected us one bit from “terrism” and is being abused to spy on spouses, activist groups who want, let’s say, to protect the environment, and other innocent (or potentially helpful) communication. It’s costing taxpayers billions of dollars that could be used elsewhere and isn’t protecting us from things like pandemics – which could begin by having some poor H7N9-infected Chinese pig farmer hop a plane and land in NY, infecting everyone on board without them even knowing, and spreading it to everyone they meet, including their families over the next several weeks or months. Who ya gonna call?

    • I know this may sound redundant, but just give this a thought.
      No elected official can actually force the NSA to stop violating our right to privacy, et al. because they too have dirty hands. Meaning, they have served in office and allowed such crimes to take place and as such, they cannot -by law- make any move whatsoever to stop the NSA or any other agency from doing what they are already guilty of (by inaction).

      So, here we go with me in the gubernatorial run and having never played as a public servant or elected official. I have “clean hands”… Meaning, when (not if) I am elected to office where I have the ability to “have the laws enforced” which is in fact, the duty of a Governor, I can have all elected officials both charged and if need be arrested for their criminal violations.

      This is not the main tenant of my campaign, but it certainly makes a difference. With three definite Arizona cities under my wing to be built in the state (D.O.E.is already backing me with their ‘green city’ which they have designed) and billions of dollars in new industry and a jobs plan that kicks butt… Not to mention my pre-campaign agreement with a couple of insurance carriers to cover 7 million Arizonans with health insurance at %75 per head (which allows for a return of funds to both those who have retired and on Medicare and the various 250K native Americans in my state under their crappy IHS)…. I actually have a shot at this.

      How long before I catch a bullet or mysteriously drive off the road? Opinions?

      But to answer Tom about who to call… That would be me once I am in office. By the way- the law is on OUR side, not those who have violated it and who are serving as elected or appointed officials.

  • Bill

    Your analysis is spot-on, Jim. What NSA is doing with this data is a form of what is more generally called “co-occurrence analysis,” which is a well-established powerful technique in bioinformatics, machine learning, text-mining, information retrieval, and many other domains. I myself have implemented co-occurrence analysis to good effect in some very successful (non-sinister) technology products through the years. It’s a lovely analytical technique, and the more raw data you feed it, the better it performs. Since NSA has ALL the data, you’d better believe that CO-TRAVELER must really stand up and sing.

    For me, the worst thing about CO-TRAVELER and similar efforts is the inevitable chilling effect on our constitutionally secured freedom of assembly. Don’t give me any of that “if you’re not doing anything wrong you shouldn’t worry about being watched” cr@p. Tell that to the German Jews (and their goyim friends) of 1938, or the innocent civilians in the Soviet Union in the 1970s, or the North Korean and Saudi people today, etc. etc. etc. If you know that the government is constantly spying on you and, most particularly, noting your every association, this must inevitably influence your decisions regarding whether and who to associate with. In short, it constrains…or even negates…your freedom of assembly (which U.S. courts down through the ages have ruled also necessarily includes a freedom of ‘association’). Given the well-known ease of connecting anyone to anyone else in just a few short logical hops (the Kevin Bacon party game), it would be child’s play to use CO-TRAVELER to apparently associate any innocent individual with even the most heinous criminal. Anyone want to tell me that there’s even one government on earth…even the U.S….that could be relied upon to scrupulously avoid that sinister temptation when somebody pisses it off? There’s a bridge I’d like to sell you.

    This sh*t’s gotta stop. Unfortunately, it’s not, at root, the NSA’s fault…it’s the fault of a million dumb-@ss engineers and corporations who universally implemented trust-based networked systems in a world not worthy of any trust anywhere. Outlawing the NSA’s activities won’t solve the problem…spooks exist to circumnavigate the law, not to obey it. Outlawing the NSA itself won’t solve the problem…the genie is out of the bottle, so that today a dozen other countries are playing these same games, and tomorrow criminal organizations will be doing it, too. The only fix is technological: down with trust-based systems, up with strong encryption, universal transactional validation, and (ultimately) quantum communications that will make man-in-the-middle attacks impossible by definition.

    Alas, none of that is going to happen anytime soon. A more realistic quick-fix is spoofing: apps that generate so much garbage data that the real data becomes largely unusable (ideally without making the networks themselves unusable, please). Here I’m straying outside my field of expertise, but I do know for sure that the “garbage in, garbage out” principle is the one thing that can bring co-occurrence analysis, along with many other algorithms beloved by NSA, to their knees.

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