NSA PowerPoint art: Greatest hits, vol. 1

“Power corrupts. PowerPoint corrupts absolutely.”

So said master designer Edward Tufte at the top of an essay for Wired magazine in 2003. Tufte's argument was that PowerPoint dilutes and corrupts the quality of a speaker's ideas by shoehorning complex ideas into oversimplified visual templates, emphasizing graphical fluff over clarity of thought.  As if intent on proving Tufte’s thesis, the NSA slideshows leaked by Edward Snowden are a veritable feast of visual corruption.

We won’t rehash the questionable design decisions here – last summer a saw the brief rise of a cottage industry devoted exclusively to PRISM slide redesigns. But with yesterday’s reveal of the MYSTIC cell phone wizard, it seemed like a good time for a retrospective of some of our favorite NSA slideshow art from the past year.

The PRISM logo

PRISM slideshow via The Washington Post
PRISM slideshow via The Washington Post

The graphic that started it all. When the PRISM slides became public last summer commenters noted the logo's similarity to the cover of Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon" album, and even tracked down the stock photo the NSA appropriated for the background of the logo.

The NSA doodler(s)

Fairy doodle via ProPublica. Cloud doodle via Washington Post
Fairy doodle via ProPublica. Cloud doodle via Washington Post

While the NSA seems to occasionally borrow the art of others for internal presentations, some slides feature original illustrations. Some are as simple the hand drawn diagram featuring a cheeky smiley face indicating where the agency could tap into the data links between tech companies. Others are more elaborate -- like the fairy waving a magic wand revealed in a ProPublica report about NSA collection of leaked app data.

TAO inside

NSA Tao logo
Tailored Access Operations presentation, via ACLU

TAO is the NSA's program that collects intelligence about foreign targets by hacking into their computers, stealing data, and monitoring communications. This graphic is an appropriation of the famous "Intel Inside" logo found on PCs running Intel processors. The implication? The NSA is in your computer.

Squeaky dolphin

GCHQ presentation, via The Intercept
GCHQ presentation, via The Intercept

Technically, Squeaky Dolphin is a product of the GCHQ, NSA's British counterpart. According to a GCHQ presentation, it's a program designed to provide "broad, real-time monitoring" of social media activity, including YouTube views and Facebook likes. It's not exactly clear why the dolphin is squeaky, or what he intends to do with that can of oil. It is worth noting that the graphic style in the leaked British presentations seems to be several notches above that of their American counterparts.

The internet is a cloud

internet clouds
Various NSA presentations

The internet crops up repeatedly in NSA diagrams, most often depicted as a cloud. As far as metaphors go this represents a step forward, albeit a small one, from Alaska Senator Ted Stevens' famous "series of tubes" formulation.

Fox acid


NSA presentation via Der Spiegel

Two illustrations accompanied a presentation about offensive hacking system FOXACID revealed by Der Speigel -- one of a fox being dissolved in a vat of acid, and another involving a can of spam featuring the slogan "made with FOX packed in ACID." It's unclear who is behind these drawings, but it's nice that the artist or artists found a creative outlet within their day job.

The men in black

 

NSA men in black
NSA presentation, via The Guardian

This figure graced one of the more chaotic PRISM slides dealing with collaboration between the NSA's Threat Operations Center and the FBI. It depicts FBI agents cleaning an infected computer network at a defense contractor after being alerted by the NSA.

The mystic


NSA presentation via The Washington Post

The Mystic is the newest addition to the NSA clipart pantheon. The wizard's staff has been photoshopped to include a cellphone being clutched by some sort of robotic hand. The Mystic program entails a rather impressive bit of technical wizardry that allows the NSA to record 100% of a foreign country's phone calls and replay them up to a month later.

Monkey vs. robot


NSA/GCHQ presentation via The Intercept

In a presentation about the QUANTUM malware program published by The Intercept in recent weeks the final slide features and illustration of what appears to be a cyborg monkey or gorilla attacking a robot along side a call for questions. In fact, the is a variation of an illustration for an expansion of the collectible trading card game Shadowfist drawn by artist Roberto Campus -- called "Monkey VS Robot."

Campus confirmed that the image it appears to have been taken from a tutorial featuring the illustration posted on his blog in 2007. While he was surprised to see it showing up on a classified memo, Campus told the Post over email that his art is routinely used without permission. "It comes with the territory I guess." His hypothesis is that "a good percentage of the techies working at NSA are huge geeks" like himself who are into role playing or trading card games and might have thought of using the illustration after seeing it elsewhere."

"I must say in this context, the image kinda works to convey the idea of hacking into something with brute force -- as the quantum computer based decryption reference on the document seems to point to."

Did we miss any of your favorites? Let us know in the comments.

Christopher Ingraham is a data journalist focusing primarily on issues of politics, policy and economics. He previously worked at the Brookings Institution and the Pew Research Center.
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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