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ThinThread

ThinThread

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ThinThread is the name of a project that the United States
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

 National Security Agency
National Security Agency
The National Security Agency/Central Security Service is a cryptologic intelligence agency of the United States Department of Defense responsible for the collection and analysis of foreign communications and foreign signals intelligence, as well as protecting U.S...

 engaged in during the 1990s, according to a May 17, 2006 article in the Baltimore Sun. The program involved wiretapping and sophisticated analysis of the resulting data, but according to the article, the program was discontinued after the September 11, 2001 attacks
September 11, 2001 attacks
The September 11 attacks The September 11 attacks The September 11 attacks (also referred to as September 11, September 11th or 9/119/11 is pronounced "nine eleven". The slash is not part of the pronunciation...

 due to the changes in priorities and the consolidation of U.S. intelligence authority.

ThinThread was succeeded by the Trailblazer Project
Trailblazer Project
Trailblazer was a United States National Security Agency program intended to analyze data carried on communications networks like the internet. It was able to track communication methods such as cell phones and e-mail...

 which lacked the privacy protections. A consortium led by Science Applications International Corporation
Science Applications International Corporation
SAIC is a FORTUNE 500 scientific, engineering and technology applications company headquartered in the United States with numerous federal, state, and private sector clients...

 was awarded a $280 million contract to develop Trailblazer in 2002.

Whistleblowing


A group of former NSA workers, along with a staffer from the House Intelligence Committee Diane Roark (an expert on the NSA budget, felt ThinThread was a better solution than Trailblazer. They complained to the DoD Inspector General office in 2002 about problems at the NSA, including issues surrounding Trailblazer and ThinThread. In 2007 the FBI raided the homes of these people, an evolution of President Bush's crackdown on whistleblowers and "leak
Leak
A leak is a hole or other opening, usually unintended and therefore undesired, in a container or fluid-containing system, such as a tank or a ship's hull, through which the contents of the container can escape or outside matter can enter the container...

s" after the New York Times disclosed a separate program (see NSA warrantless surveillance controversy
NSA warrantless surveillance controversy
The NSA warrantless surveillance controversy concerns surveillance of persons within the United States during the collection of foreign intelligence by the U.S. National Security Agency as part of the war on terror...

). In 2010, one of the people involved in the IG report, NSA official Thomas Andrews Drake
Thomas Andrews Drake
Thomas Andrews Drake is a former senior official of the U.S. National Security Agency , decorated United States Air Force and United States Navy veteran, computer software expert, linguist, management and leadership specialist, and whistleblower. In 2010 the government alleged that he 'mishandled'...

, was charged with espionage
Espionage Act of 1917
The Espionage Act of 1917 is a United States federal law passed on June 15, 1917, shortly after the U.S. entry into World War I. It has been amended numerous times over the years. It was originally found in Title 50 of the U.S. Code but is now found under Title 18, Crime...

., part of the Obama administration's crackdown on whistleblowers and "leaks". The original charges against him were later dropped and he pled to a misdemeanor.

The whistleblowing included a complaint to the DoD inspector general's office. The result was a 2004 audit report that was released under FOIA in 2011 . The report contained criticism of Trailblazer, but also of Thinthread, for example citing a low 'quality of service and support' from the Thinthread Program Team, a lack of documentation
Documentation
Documentation is a term used in several different ways. Generally, documentation refers to the process of providing evidence.Modules of Documentation are Helpful...

, a lack of a configuration management
Configuration management
Configuration management is a field of management that focuses on establishing and maintaining consistency of a system or product's performance and its functional and physical attributes with its requirements, design, and operational information throughout its life.For information assurance, CM...

 system, and a lack of a trouble ticket system. However, "The findings that led to the recommendations would not have prevented the successful deployment of THINTHREAD . . . the recommendations were made to improve the operational efficiency of THINTHREAD after it was deployed . . . "

Technical details


The program would have used a technique of encrypting sensitive privacy information in order to circumvent legal concerns, and would have automatically identified potential threats. The sources of the data for this program would have included "massive phone and e-mail data," but the extent of this information is not clear. Only once a threat was discovered, would the data be decrypted for analysis by agents.

ThinThread would have bundled together four cutting-edge surveillance tools.:
  • Used more sophisticated methods of sorting through massive phone and e-mail data to identify suspect communications.

  • Identified U.S. phone numbers and other communications data and encrypted them to ensure caller privacy.

  • Employed an automated auditing system to monitor how analysts handled the information, in order to prevent misuse and improve efficiency.

  • Analyzed the data to identify relationships between callers and chronicle their contacts. Only when evidence of a potential threat had been developed would analysts be able to request decryption of the records.


Intelligence experts describe as rigorous testing of ThinThread in 1998, the project succeeded at each task with high marks. For example, its ability to sort through massive amounts of data to find threat-related communications far surpassed the existing system. It also was able to rapidly separate and encrypt U.S.-related communications to ensure privacy.

The Pentagon report concluded that ThinThread's ability to sort through data in 2001 was far superior to that of another NSA system in place in 2004, and that the program should be launched and enhanced. ThinThread was designed to address two key challenges: One, the NSA had more information than it could digest, and, two, increasingly its targets were in contact with people in the United States whose calls the agency was prohibited from monitoring.

Trailblazer Project
Trailblazer Project
Trailblazer was a United States National Security Agency program intended to analyze data carried on communications networks like the internet. It was able to track communication methods such as cell phones and e-mail...

 had more political support internally because it was initiated by Michael Hayden when he first arrived at the NSA.

NSA's existing system for data-sorting has produced a database clogged with corrupted and useless information. The mass collection of relatively unsorted data, combined with system flaws erroneously flag people as suspect, has produced numerous false leads, draining analyst resources. NSA leads have resulted in numerous dead ends.

NSA dropped the component that monitored for abuse of records. It not only tracked the use of the database, but hunted for the most effective analysis techniques, and some analysts thought it would be used to judge their performance. Within the NSA, the primary advocate for the ThinThread program was Richard Taylor. Taylor has retired from the NSA. The strength of ThinThread's approach is that by encrypting information on Americans, it is legal regardless of whether the country is at war.

ThinThread "was designed very carefully from a legal point of view, so that even in non-wartime, you could have done it legitimately."

End of the project


The project was ended after successful testing by General Michael Hayden, and while the privacy elements were not retained, the analysis technology is reported to be the underlying basis of current NSA analysis techniques.

"They basically just disabled the [privacy] safeguards."

Some anonymous NSA officials told Hosenball of Newsweek that the ThinThread program, like Trailblazer
Trailblazer Project
Trailblazer was a United States National Security Agency program intended to analyze data carried on communications networks like the internet. It was able to track communication methods such as cell phones and e-mail...

, was a "wasteful failure".

See Also

  • NSA electronic surveillance program
    NSA electronic surveillance program
    An electronic surveillance program, whose actual name is currently unknown, was implemented by the National Security Agency of the United States in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks. It was part of the President's Surveillance Program which was in turn conducted under the overall umbrella...

  • Thomas Andrews Drake
    Thomas Andrews Drake
    Thomas Andrews Drake is a former senior official of the U.S. National Security Agency , decorated United States Air Force and United States Navy veteran, computer software expert, linguist, management and leadership specialist, and whistleblower. In 2010 the government alleged that he 'mishandled'...

  • Trailblazer Project
    Trailblazer Project
    Trailblazer was a United States National Security Agency program intended to analyze data carried on communications networks like the internet. It was able to track communication methods such as cell phones and e-mail...

  • Thomas Tamm
    Thomas Tamm
    Thomas Tamm is a former lawyer in the United States Department of Justice's Office of Intelligence Policy and Review during the period in 2004 when senior Justice officials fought against the widening scope of warrantless NSA surveillance—and was the anonymous initial whistleblower to The...

  • Russ Tice
    Russ Tice
    Russell D. Tice is a former intelligence analyst for the U.S. Air Force, Office of Naval Intelligence, Defense Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency...