How Extensive is NSA Phone and Internet Surveillance…The Latest Revelations

Friday, August 02, 2013

The Obama administration’s claim that the secret National Security Agency (NSA) domestic spying activities are limited to “meta-data” turns out to be a meta-lie, according to documents revealed by exiled NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. Since Snowden’s revelations began, the president himself has insisted that the government is not snooping on the details of anyone’s online activities, but limiting itself to so-called “ meta-data,” which is like looking at someone’s itemized phone bill but not listening in on their calls.


However, the documents verify a statement made by Snowden in a video interview with the Guardian on June 10.


“I, sitting at my desk,” claimed Snowden, could “wiretap anyone, from you or your accountant, to a federal judge or even the president, if I had a personal email.” Although various federal officials, including House Intelligence Committee Chair Mike Rogers (R-Alabama), publicly called Snowden a liar, the newly revealed documents show exactly how an analyst could do just as Snowden described, without any review by a court or even NSA personnel.


The documents reveal the existence of a program called XKeyscore (XKS), which NSA calls its “widest-reaching” system for online spying. Materials used to train analysts to use the program back in the days of the George W. Bush administration state that it provides access to “nearly everything a typical user does on the internet,” including the content of emails and online chats, websites visited and searches, as well as metadata.


Although U.S. law requires the NSA to obtain a search warrant if the surveillance target is a “U.S. person,” XKS provides the technical capability to conduct extensive electronic surveillance on Americans without a warrant—or anyone knowing about it.


The capabilities of XKeyscore for domestic spying include the following:   


  • Analysts can use XKS to intercept an individual’s internet activity in “real-time.”


  • Analysts can use XKS to read an individual’s emails, whether open or unopened.


  • Analysts can use XKS to monitor social media, including the content of Facebook chats or private messages, and can re-create an individual’s online activities, including search terms entered and websites viewed. 


All of this can be done, according to a “top secret” 2010 NSA document, by clicking a few pull-down menus justifying the decision and marking the individual for electronic surveillance.


The gargantuan size of the XKS database—in 2012, there were at least 41 billion total records collected and stored for a single 30-day period—along with the intrusive nature of the secret surveillance, led Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) to reject the claim made by director of national intelligence James Clapper that any abuses by NSA have arisen because of “human error” or “highly sophisticated technology issues,” rather than “bad faith.” Earlier this year, Clapper testified before a Senate committee—falsely, it turns out—that the government was not snooping on Americans’ communications.


On the Senate floor on Tuesday, however, Wyden said that “these violations are more serious than those stated by the intelligence community, and are troubling.”

-Matt Bewig


To Learn More:

XKeyscore: NSA Tool Collects 'Nearly Everything a User Does on the Internet' (by Glenn Greenwald, The Guardian)

XKeyscore Slide Presentation (2008)

Most Analysis of Spy Data is Done by Private Contractors (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

U.S. Spies Collect 3 Billion Pieces of Intelligence a Day from Computer and Telephone Networks Worldwide (by David Wallechinsky and Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)


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