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Patrick Keefe '05 Investigates SigInt in Chatter

Yale Law School student Patrick Radden Keefe, author of the newly released book Chatter: Dispatches from the Secret World of Global Eavesdropping, says that there were similarities between trying to research the workings of the National Security Agency, the bureau of the U.S. government that focuses on signals intelligence, and intelligence work itself.

"The cliche about intelligence is that you're connecting the dots," says Keefe. "You take a data set that's incomplete and draw from that various conclusions--and that was very much my experience, that I had to cobble together all the stuff we know."

The NSA operates in secrecy, refusing even to disclose its annual budget. When Keefe visited a large listening station in England (he describes it as an "extraordinary moonbase of an eavesdropping station smack in the middle of the English countryside"), he wasn't allowed past the front gate. He interviewed former intelligence agents, experts in communications technology, politicians, and conspiracy theorists, but the NSA wouldn't answer any of his questions.

But Keefe was able to pull together his dots obliquely. When he couldn't get into the listening station in England, he went to a local pub and talked with people who had worked at the base. Then he went to the U.S. Patent Office. He explains that in the last twenty years, the NSA has started patenting some of the technologies they develop. These patents gave Keefe a glimpse of the agency's activities. For instance, he knew that terrorist groups have used a technology called steganography to conceal encrypted messages in images on websites. "If I had gone to the NSA and said, 'Is that a problem for you guys? Is that something you're thinking about?' they never would have told me anything. But if you go to the USPTO, they actually have patents, and the title of the patent is something like 'method for extracting text implicit in site images.'"

Keefe adds, "The second sense in which it was like intelligence work is that you're always worried about reliability. The agencies will never come out and actively debunk any kind of a story--they just always stay silent. There are all kinds of paranoid cranky weirdos out there who will tell you all kinds of nutty things."

Keefe began this challenging avenue of investigation several years ago, when he was a graduate student in England. He read accounts of a European Union investigation into a surveillance system run by the U.S., the U.K., and several other countries, called Echelon. He was captivated by reports that he said sounded like a "conspiracy theory." Echelon was supposedly capable of capturing millions of communications every hour, but it operated in near-total secrecy, so that no one in the public really knew what it was. "There's nothing that sparks your interest quite like being told that there's a big thing that you can't know about," Keefe says.

From the moment he began investigating Echelon, Keefe figured he would never know everything he wanted to about it. However, he says, "There were so many questions and they were so compelling and important that they were worth raising." For example, Keefe notes that the system raised international relations questions, as the British had data protection obligations as part of the EU but also participated in Echelon. Echelon clearly threatened individual privacy and raised questions around how much secrecy democratic governments should be able to maintain in the name of national security.

Keefe continued his investigations after starting Law School in 2001. And some of his courses shaped his understanding of the issues underlying Echelon and the use of signals intelligence. A class on the Fourth Amendment taught by Kate Stith, Lafayette S. Foster Professor of Law, led Keefe to consider "the intersection of theoretical and technical interpretations of privacy." One paper he wrote became a part of his book proposal, and a legislation class helped him understand how laws could be crafted to properly regulate intelligence activities--or fail in that role.

After five years studying the secret workings of the NSA, Keefe has a new understanding of what privacy means today. "When you really spend time among the people who are advancing surveillance technology at the ground level, it's extraordinary what they're doing. And you can't help but wonder if this technology continues unabated, what kind of a society we'll be living in.... There's this slightly unholy marriage right now between private research and development companies ... and defense and intelligence agencies that are terrified and will pretty much throw money at anything that might in any way avert another attack. But I think the result is some ill-considered programs that will pretty radically undermine privacy as we've traditionally thought of it."

In addition, the nature of privacy is changing as people conduct more and more of their lives online. "We now conceive of identity and communication in a radically different way," says Keefe. And he argues that these changes are accelerating too fast for scholarly understanding or the law to keep up. At the same time, it's also a challenge for the intelligence agencies. "On the one hand it's a great opportunity for them that people put so much online," says Keefe. "It's not just your phone calls anymore, it's what you do on Google, and how you pay your bills, who you instant message. So it's a big opportunity for them but they're so overwhelmed by the quantity."

Once again Keefe identifies a similarity between his research and intelligence work. He describes searching for information about Echelon on the internet and finding millions of pages that discuss it, including reliable sources and sources that postulate the involvement of extraterrestrials. "The problem with the internet is that there's such profusion of stuff that it's really hard to gauge what you should trust," he says. But he hopes that Chatter, an old-fashioned book, will provide an authoritative resource.