Here’s what we learned about the NSA’s spying programs in 2013

December 31, 2013

On June 5, millions of Americans learned the U.S. government was collecting and storing information about their phone calls thanks to documents from former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden. And over the following months, a barrage of stories revealing the extent of state-sponsored surveillance activities has held the front page of newspapers around the world captive.

But the sheer volume of information rushing past has made it hard to keep track of the sheer breadth of NSA spying programs. So I've gone back through seven months of revelations and compiled this handy summary.

Phone spying. The NSA collects information about everyone's domestic phone calls -- who you call, who calls you, when, and perhaps more information. While it denies intentionally targeting the location data of American citizens, it also collects 5 billion records a day concerning the location of cellphones and mobile devices around the world, including an unknown number of records about the the whereabouts of domestic cellphones that the NSA has collected "incidentally."

Spying on online services. The NSA program PRISM allows the agency to request content and other types of data directly from major tech companies, including Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Apple, and Facebook. But the NSA also infiltrates the links connecting Google and Yahoo data centers worldwide -- effectively positioning itself to "collect at will from hundreds of millions of user accounts, many of them belonging to Americans." The agency also scoops up millions of e-mail address books and contact lists globally. During the Bush years and up through 2011, it collected information about Americans' e-mails and Web surfing too.

Tapping the Internet backbone. Not content with information collected from online service providers, the NSA also engages in "upstream collection" by tapping into fiber optic cables and other core Internet infrastructure. It also appears to be sifting through the content of e-mail and text communication as it flows across the U.S. border. While this surveillance officially targets foreigners, the communications of Americans may also be swept up, since some online services store Americans' data on overseas servers.

Undermining consumer security. The NSA is waging a war on encryption -- and has been winning by "using supercomputers, technical trickery, court orders and behind-the-scenes persuasion to undermine the major tools protecting the privacy of everyday communications in the Internet age," according to The New York Times. It maintains a 50-page catalog of exploits and backdoors into the products of major tech companies -- and intercepts packages to put some of them there. If you have an iPhone, they can get in it. Along with its British counterpart, the agency also targeted anonymous browsing tool Tor -- albeit largely unsuccessfully. It also uses a system of secret servers to redirect and infect targets with malware tailored to compromise the target's computer system. To identify targets, it piggybacks onto the tracking mechanisms used by tech companies to identify targets for exploitation -- including one of the most common Google cookies.

Breaking its own privacy rules. The NSA broke its own privacy rules thousands of times per year according to internal audits. In a particularly unsettling revelation, NSA officers abused surveillance powers to snoop on romantic interests. The practice was common enough it had its own slang: LOVEINT. The secret court that oversees the NSA's spying programs also rebuked the agency for repeatedly misleading it about the scope of surveillance.

This list makes it seem like there is hardly anything the NSA isn't doing -- and it's not even a full list. Countless additional stories or details suggest the scope of the NSA's activities are far beyond what most Americans realized before reporting on the Snowden documents.

And as these activities have come to light, a public debate ensued as have lawsuits, presidential task forces, and attempts at legislative remedy. But so far none of these have resulted in meaningful policy change. The status quo continues, if with forced disclosures and administration arguments that the public just doesn't understand how difficult it is to prevent the next 9/11 -- even though there's been no evidence publicly revealed so far that these measures have prevented the next 9/11.

But if 2013 is the year the NSA's surveillance capabilities were laid bare, perhaps 2014 will be the year the public figures out how to deal with it. As President Obama said, "we’re going to have to make some choices as a society."

Andrea Peterson covers technology policy for The Washington Post, with an emphasis on cybersecurity, consumer privacy, transparency, surveillance and open government.
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December 31, 2013

On June 5, millions of Americans learned the U.S. government was collecting and storing information about their phone calls thanks to documents from former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden. And over the following months, a barrage of stories revealing the extent of state-sponsored surveillance activities has held the front page of newspapers around the world captive.

But the sheer volume of information rushing past has made it hard to keep track of the sheer breadth of NSA spying programs. So I've gone back through seven months of revelations and compiled this handy summary.

Phone spying. The NSA collects information about everyone's domestic phone calls -- who you call, who calls you, when, and perhaps more information. While it denies intentionally targeting the location data of American citizens, it also collects 5 billion records a day concerning the location of cellphones and mobile devices around the world, including an unknown number of records about the the whereabouts of domestic cellphones that the NSA has collected "incidentally."

Spying on online services. The NSA program PRISM allows the agency to request content and other types of data directly from major tech companies, including Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Apple, and Facebook. But the NSA also infiltrates the links connecting Google and Yahoo data centers worldwide -- effectively positioning itself to "collect at will from hundreds of millions of user accounts, many of them belonging to Americans." The agency also scoops up millions of e-mail address books and contact lists globally. During the Bush years and up through 2011, it collected information about Americans' e-mails and Web surfing too.

Tapping the Internet backbone. Not content with information collected from online service providers, the NSA also engages in "upstream collection" by tapping into fiber optic cables and other core Internet infrastructure. It also appears to be sifting through the content of e-mail and text communication as it flows across the U.S. border. While this surveillance officially targets foreigners, the communications of Americans may also be swept up, since some online services store Americans' data on overseas servers.

Undermining consumer security. The NSA is waging a war on encryption -- and has been winning by "using supercomputers, technical trickery, court orders and behind-the-scenes persuasion to undermine the major tools protecting the privacy of everyday communications in the Internet age," according to The New York Times. It maintains a 50-page catalog of exploits and backdoors into the products of major tech companies -- and intercepts packages to put some of them there. If you have an iPhone, they can get in it. Along with its British counterpart, the agency also targeted anonymous browsing tool Tor -- albeit largely unsuccessfully. It also uses a system of secret servers to redirect and infect targets with malware tailored to compromise the target's computer system. To identify targets, it piggybacks onto the tracking mechanisms used by tech companies to identify targets for exploitation -- including one of the most common Google cookies.

Breaking its own privacy rules. The NSA broke its own privacy rules thousands of times per year according to internal audits. In a particularly unsettling revelation, NSA officers abused surveillance powers to snoop on romantic interests. The practice was common enough it had its own slang: LOVEINT. The secret court that oversees the NSA's spying programs also rebuked the agency for repeatedly misleading it about the scope of surveillance.

This list makes it seem like there is hardly anything the NSA isn't doing -- and it's not even a full list. Countless additional stories or details suggest the scope of the NSA's activities are far beyond what most Americans realized before reporting on the Snowden documents.

And as these activities have come to light, a public debate ensued as have lawsuits, presidential task forces, and attempts at legislative remedy. But so far none of these have resulted in meaningful policy change. The status quo continues, if with forced disclosures and administration arguments that the public just doesn't understand how difficult it is to prevent the next 9/11 -- even though there's been no evidence publicly revealed so far that these measures have prevented the next 9/11.

But if 2013 is the year the NSA's surveillance capabilities were laid bare, perhaps 2014 will be the year the public figures out how to deal with it. As President Obama said, "we’re going to have to make some choices as a society."

Andrea Peterson covers technology policy for The Washington Post, with an emphasis on cybersecurity, consumer privacy, transparency, surveillance and open government.
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Brian Fung | December 31, 2013