The Complex

3 Degrees of Separation Is Enough to Have You Watched By the NSA

The NSA's secretive electronic dragnet turns out to be bigger -- a lot bigger -- than previously realized.

In a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday about NSA surveillance activities, the agency's second-in-command, Chris Inglis, said that when analysts try to determine if a particular individual is engaged in terrorist activity, they will look at the communications of people who are as many as three steps removed from that original target.

In practical terms, this means that the number of people who are being caught up in the NSA's electronic nets is vastly larger than previously known -- the number could easily be in the tens of millions. Until today, we had understood that analysts only searched two "hops" beyond their target; that is, they looked at the communications of people with whom the target was communicating, as well as the people those individuals were in touch with.

Adding a third hop exponentially increases the number of innocent people that are caught up in the net whenever the NSA makes an attempt to determine if their original target is actually a terrorist or involved in terrorist activities. And every time that the search extends by one hop, the likelihood of inadvertently collecting the communications of U.S. citizens and legal residents -- who are protected under the law -- shoots up.

So just how many people could be caught in the net? If you're familiar with the concept of six degrees of separation -- the idea that everyone on the planet can be connected to everyone else by six "hops" -- then three hops may not seem to produce a huge number of connections.

But research suggests that we're all more closely connected to each other because of the profusion of digital communications. One study found that each of us is linked to another random person on the planet by 4.7 degrees of separation. And another concluded that any person can find his or her way to a stranger in only three hops.

Now, according to an NSA slide published by the Washington Post, the agency had more than 117,000 "active surveillance targets" in a database associated with the PRISM collection system revealed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. The slide doesn't specify whether this means that more than 117,000 people were actively being surveilled. But generally, a target refers to a single individual.

Now assume that each one of those 117,000 targets communicates with five others. That's 585,000 people in the first hop. Assume that those folks all have five contacts, and you get 2,925,000 in the second hop. But it's the third hop where the numbers start getting ridiculous: again, assuming each target only communicates with five others, and you're at 14,625,000. Assuming that there's no overlap in contacts, this will bring the total number of people in the net to more than 18 million. True, many of us share contacts, which would lower the number. But then, do you know anyone who has only five contacts? In reality, the number would be much higher than 18 million.

And this, the NSA says, is how it determines if someone is "reasonably believed" to be involved in terrorism. 

Despite this sobering revelation, there were some lighter moments in Tuesday's hearing. Committee chairman Bob Goodlatte, a Republican from Virginia, asked a senior intelligence official, "Do you think a program of this magnitude ... could be indefinitely kept secret from the American people?''

"Well, we tried,'' said Robert Litt, the general counsel of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

Officials were also at pains to stress that while NSA surveillance may have inadvertently collected information at times on U.S. citizens, "there has been no one who has abused this [surveillance authority]," said Deputy Attorney General James Cole.

Inglis, the NSA deputy director, added that there had been no "willful abuse" of the programs. But a member of the committee questioned how robust the agency's oversight capabilities are. An annual report to Congress on the NSA's collection of phone records runs less than a page and is only about eight sentences long, said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a Democrat from California. "I think that very clearly this program has gone off the tracks legally," Lofgren said, expressing doubts that Congress would continue to authorize it.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The Complex

China Has a New Propaganda Machine -- and This One Can Fly

In a move straight from the U.S. Air Force's playbook, China is now fielding its very own flying propaganda broadcast plane.

Chinese state-run media is reporting that the People's Liberation Army Air Force has modified one of its planes -- what appears to be a Y-8 airlifter (basically, Beijing's version of the U.S.-made C-130 Hercules) -- to carry the kind of broadcast equipment capable of taking over a country's radio and TV channels. It's another sign that the Chinese military is slowly starting to close the enormous advantage that the U.S. Air Force has over it in the skies.

The new plane, dubbed the Gaoxin 7, will "give the enemy nervous breakdowns" as it flies through the skies, according to a hype-ridden article by the Chinese state-run Global Times.

Not impressed yet? What if we told you that the Gaoxin 7 will also (according to a translation of the Global Times article in Hong Kong's South China Morning Post), "limit the spread of enemy propaganda, affect the morale of the enemy's army, sow seeds of rumor and confusion, and send all enemy troops from soldiers to officials into a state of nervous breakdown, achieving victory without soldiers even having to fight?"

"After that," the paper says, "[dealing with] dropped enemy pamphlets and other propaganda items will be a piece of cake."

The Global Times article on this new "weapon of mass persuasion" has received its fair share of mockery from Chinese Internet users for its breathless tone (see this overview in the South China Morning Post). But as the article notes, the United States has a long history with these kinds of PsyOps tactics -- and they're a little more sophisticated than they might at first appear.

The Chinese plane appears to be modeled after U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command's EC-130J Commando Solo.

The Harrisburg, Pa.-based Commando Solos carry massive amounts of VHF, UHF, AM, FM, and military communications-band broadcast equipment capable of overriding the broadcasts being watched or listened to by the target audience and replacing them with a message of the U.S. government's choosing. Uncle Sam literally takes over your television.

We've been using Commando Solos and their predecessors -- the EC-121 Coronet Solo -- for decades to broadcast messages of doom for our enemies and love for our allies. They flew over Southeast Asia in the early 1970s, and traveled to the Persian Gulf in the early 1990s for Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, during which they flew around playing messages designed to convince Iraqi soldiers to surrender. They made news again in 2011 for their role in the Operation Odyssey Dawn mission in Libya.

You can listen to one of the messages (broadcast in both English and Arabic here) directed at sailors in the Libyan navy here ("If you target NATO vessels, you will be destroyed," it says). But it's not all threats and bluster: in post-9/11 Afghanistan, the planes were dispatched to play Afghan pop music for a population that had been music-less for years under Taliban rule.

Useful? Maybe. The source of mass nervous breakdowns and surrender? Not quite. To be honest, we don't really know how much these PsyOps are aiding the U.S. cause; as Wired has noted, one of the issues with this kind of operation is measuring its effectiveness. We also don't yet know what China has in mind for its new plane. But if America's history here is any indication, we've got a long way to go before a flying propaganda machine manages to achieve victory without any fighting.

China Defense Mashup