MH370: NSA to the rescue?

There has been a great deal in the media over the last year about the National Security Agency and its seeming omnipresence. So is it reasonable to think that someone at Fort Meade might know where that lost Malaysian airliner is? Well, yes and no.

Basically, NSA’s job is to intercept electronic signals from which useful intelligence can be gleaned. So the first question is: what kind of signals could MH370 have been emitting? We know that its radar transponder was not operating but other communications systems might have continued to work. The Wall Street Journal reported that the Rolls Royce engines on the plane had a monitoring system that continued to transmit maintenance data to their manufacturer via satellite for several hours after the plane went missing. That report was later retracted but it is not clear whether or not that means that no such data received. A source of confidential information to the Journal might have demanded reconsidered leaking the story. According to the Malaysia Airlines website, their 777-200 aircraft are equipped with satellite phones so, were the plane in distress a passenger might have called someone to report it. And, of course, most of the passengers likely had personal cell phones. Although those phones are supposed to be in “airplane mode” with their radio function disabled it is very likely that at least some were turned on. If they were, they would be continually transmitting their electronic identification numbers or EINs. So, even with the primary communications systems disabled, the aircraft would most likely be transmitting a number of electronic signals.

Ok, but could NSA have collected any of those signals? Probably. The agency operates satellites in geostationary orbits 22,400 miles above the equator. From that vantage those satellites can collect electronic emissions from much of the Earth’s surface. So, in theory, NSA could have received any signals sent from the ill-fated aircraft. Certainly they would have intercepted any satellite telephone calls. My guess is that given the propensity of terrorists and drug traffickers to use cellular phones, NSA is particularly adept at intercepting their signals. Quite likely, NSA is able to detect the EIN of any cell phone within the satellites field of regard. And one would assume, they have the software necessary to extract specific EINs from the massive amount of data they collect.

The next problem would be to figure out what EINs to look for. That should be relatively straightforward. Given the aircraft manifest someone working at NSA or some other agency should be able to obtain the EINs of the cellphones owned by the people on board the aircraft. With those EINs in hand it would be relatively easy to determine when the plane crashed…if it did. But that would not pinpoint where it went down.

Still, it is entirely likely that NSA has or could develop information relevant to the search for the missing plane. That said, there are legitimate reasons for the agency to be cautious about revealing what they know for fear of compromising their capabilities and methods. I imagine that there are efforts on-going to find ways to launder NSA data about the flight. If so, NSA is missing a great opportunity. In the wake of the Edward Snowden revelations, the public believes that NSA is all-knowing. They are not, of course, they do know a lot. This could be a chance for the agency to burnish its reputation at little cost. NSA should reveal what they know about MH370.


0 Responses to “MH370: NSA to the rescue?”

  1. Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: