PRISM, Congress, and the Flasher

The recent ISIS-inspired slaughter of innocent Americans in San Bernardino, California, has once again raised the question of the NSA / CIA use of the information gathering system that was basically nothing more than a listing of phone numbers showing which NUMBERS called which NUMBERS.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I admit that I had some part in the creation of that system back in that time when I worked in “the black world” of national security and national secrets. And I was somewhat amused when all the controversy originally surfaced when the American public was first made aware of the existence of this truly innocuous system.

Politicians, especially a couple currently running for President, have flaunted their technical ignorance and played to the fears and paranoia of the American people in the aftermath of the San Bernardino massacre and the fact that most Americans are not comfortable with our government’s intrusions into our personal lives, even those of the Democratic persuasion.

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And all this chatter about the PRISM system brought back memories of one of the first computer-aided projects I worked on back in the 1970’s. I was in the Army then, and was assigned to one of those bases that the government does not want to talk about a lot. I was working on a very early and very expensive scientific-based defense system, whose advertised potential abilities far outstripped any existing technology of that time. Inside the project, it was called “The Gold and Platinum System” because of the costs of the research and development costs.

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There was much interest in the advertised potential capabilities of this system throughout the worldwide community of America’s allies. On occasion, our R&D site would receive groups of visitors which were often comprised of General Officers and senior civilians from several of our allies.

Now it is important to know that in a research and development environment of that sort, the computers actually did very little compared to what occurs now days. During the experimentation phases, the computers did data acquisition, and in that project, it meant that the computers would react to random events in the field, and, after the data acquisition phase, they “crunched the numbers,” a process that seldom took more than an hour or so for each field exercise.

Our computer was one of the first “mini-computers” created by Hewlett-Packard (HP), which was still supported until 2006. That machine had a series of sixteen lighted switches on its face—one for each bit in a register. And there were several other lighted switches to control the box. To start the machine, it was necessary to enter a minimal series of “boot strap” commands into the machine in a binary form via those sixteen lighted switches. All very interesting.

When we were notified that a distinguished group of visitors were about to descend upon our field R&D center, I would load “The Flasher” into the computer and set it loose. “The Flasher” was an interesting program based on scientific principles which utilized components of the operating system that generated a series of random numbers which would be displayed on those lighted switches on the front of the computer, followed by a series of random numbers that would be shifted along the sixteen bit lighted panel at a random rate of speed derived in a similar manner. In human terms, I simply threw garbage at the lighted switches to give the impression that the computer was working hard to solve our scientific challenges. The visitors were always sufficiently impressed with our efforts.

In the more than forty years since those days our computer technology has advanced at leaps and bounds that were totally unimaginable at that time. But the same cannot be said for the ability of the average American to even begin to understand the basics of it all, and, sadly, we elect our “representatives” who share that willful ignorance.

This is what you need to understand about the PRISM system. Pick up an old phone book—or even a new phone book, since no one uses a phone book any more—and make a list of the last names of ten different people you know. Remove the pages of the phone book that contain the first letter of each last name in your list. Example: Smith, Jones, Randal, Wiley, etc., would produce all the pages with last names that start with S, J, R, W. And yes, there may be other names in those pages because printing flows from page to page. Now cut off the columns that contain JUST THE PHONE NUMBERS. You now have half of the PRISM database. Now cut each phone number into a separate strip into a single pile. Then mix up the pile and sort it out in pairs of numbers; two numbers per group. Now you have the entire PRISM database. If you happened to pick a page that has your name in it, then your name is now in that database, but I will wager that, in viewing all that data, you probably would not be able to pick it out.

The PRISM database is nothing more than a pile of numbers consisting of a pairing of phone numbers that contacted other phone numbers. The data is stored in a manner that allows for quick retrieval and analysis without all the overhead of personal information.

Now… Our military captures or kills a “high priority” target in Afghanistan and recovers a cell phone or computer files with phone numbers in them. Those phone numbers are fed into the PRISM system along with the number of the cell phone that was found and basically the question asked is “What numbers were called by this number and what numbers called this number and what numbers did all those numbers call?”

Now…Back in a math class that I once took, I recall the formula: P = 1/n-1! Or “The Probability (P), expressed as a decimal value or a percentage, of a single
event is equal to one (1) divided by ( / )the number of all possible events (n) minus one (1) factorial (!).”

If we take just TEN numbers, the probability of making just one connection is 1/ 3,628,799 or point zero, zero, zero, zero, zero, zero, zero, two, seven five five seven three two seven PERCENT (.000000027557327%). Now how many numbers did you accumulate in the “cut up the phone book” exercise? You need a super computer to just to calculate the possibility, much less to be able to define a common network among all those numbers.

The bottom line is that the PRISM system is a much needed and very powerful system to defend this country, and those who use it really do not care which Congressmen and Senators are sleeping around on their spouses or which “bought and paid for” representatives are in constant contact with their bookies and lobbyists and whomever.

And I am not suggesting that those in congress who voted to shut this system down have any of those foibles, although the probability does exist, but their willingness to strip one more very powerful system for national defense is but a modern day of that old “Flasher” program that I created forty years ago. They are fascinated and amazed at the technology and have absolutely no idea what the hell they are looking at.

Those of us who want to communicate without anybody – like our government – poking around it the who, what, when, and where, we know how to do that, and so do far too many of those who would end this country. But the average “soldier of Jihad,” as well as the vast majority of our “representatives” do not. We need to return this PRISM system, this most useful national defense system, to those who still want to protect We The People and our homeland.

Oh, and all you math wizards should hold your math comments for a later discussion.

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