US Government Data Data Protection

The NSA knows much more about you than you think

By Mark Leiser, Research Fellow

August 2, 2013 | 4 min read

New Edward Snowden revelations show that the NSA intercepts far more communications than previously thought.

NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden’s revelations that the US government essentially monitors all communications going in and out of the US have led to accusations that the monitoring program is actually much wider than initially suspected. This is because international calls between two different parties in non-US countries are often routed through the US telephone exchange system, where the NSA has access. A top-secret report leaked by Snowden reveals that, “most international telephone calls are routed through a small number of switches or ‘chokepoints’ in the international telephone switching system en route to their final destination,” says the report. “The United States is a major crossroads for international switched telephone traffic.”The NSA has placed filters at key points within the US’s telecommunications network. For example, much of the communications—telephone and Internet—to and from the north-western United States pass through a nearly windowless nine-story building at 611 Folsom Street in San Francisco. The surveillance program allows for almost indiscriminate targeting of data of individuals inside and outside the US. According to a recent slide released by Snowden, the NSA on April 5, 2013, had 117,675 active surveillance targets in the program and was able to access real-time data on live voice, text, email, or Internet chat services, in addition to analysing stored data.Additional leaks attributed to Snowden reveal an NSA project called XKeyscore that, with a few keystrokes, can give a data analyst access to nearly everything a user does on the Internet – from chat sessions to email to browsing habits. The NSA claimed that direct communications between people (either in an online capacity, or through telephone) work by searching for certain terms in emails, blogs, and browsing habits are directed specifically at people overseas. Occasionally the NSA picks up communications between Americans and foreigners. The program is lawful according to the NSA: “XKeyscore is used as a part of NSA’s lawful foreign signals intelligence collection system,” said the NSA to the Guardian. “Allegations of widespread, unchecked analyst access to NSA collection data are simply not true.”The NSA’s claim that it operates within a lawful, legal framework may be of little solace to Europeans, as the Foreign Intelligence Security Act explicity allows for collection of communications. The NSA responded yesterday by releasing a press release claiming that, ““Allegations of widespread, unchecked analyst access to NSA collection data are simply not true,” reads a press release issued by the agency today. “Access to XKEYSCORE, as well as all of NSA’s analytic tools, is limited to only those personnel who require access for their assigned tasks.”
However, in an article for Business Insider, Michael Kelley documented and collated several instances of when US government database operators had inappropriately accessed the database facilities of the US government. • In 2008 two former NSA analysts who worked at the NSA center in Fort Gordon, Georgia told ABC they and their coworkers had listened in on the personal phone calls of soldiers stationed overseas."Hey, check this out," one said he would be told, "there's good phone sex or there's some pillow talk, pull up this call, it's really funny, go check it out. It would be some colonel making pillow talk and we would say, 'Wow, this was crazy.'"• NSA analyst Adrienne Kinne told ABC she listened to hundreds of private conversations between Americans, including many from the International Red Cross and Doctors without Borders.• NSA whistleblower Russ Tice claims that he saw NSA orders to tap the phone of then-Senator Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Senators John McCain and Diane Feinstein, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, Gen. David Petraeus, and a current Supreme Court Justice.• Michael Hayden, who was NSA director (1999 – 2005) when the first domestic spying programs began, corroborated Binney's claim when he told The Daily Beast that he remembered a collector who was fired for snooping on his ex-wife overseas.• Tom Hays of The Associated Press reports there are "a batch of corruption cases in recent years against NYPD officers accused of abusing the FBI-operated National Crime Information Center database to cyber snoop on co-workers, tip off drug dealers, stage robberies and — most notoriously — scheme to abduct and eat women."No details have been released of any existing oversight or auditing procedures the NSA have in place to ensure appropriate protections had been put in place to ensure employees with access did not abuse their privileges.

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