NSA reportedly monitored pornography viewed by suspected Islamists

The National Security Agency monitored the viewing of online pornography by several people it believed to be Islamist radicals in an effort to acquire information that could be used to discredit them, according to the Huffington Post.

The digital newspaper cited an internal document obtained by former agency contractor Edward Snowden, who has given information on the agency’s activities to other publications as well, including The Washington Post.

The targets of the monitoring were not believed to be directly involved in terrorist plots. Rather, the agency wanted to damage their reputations because it believed they could lead other Muslims to violent radicalism:

The NSA accuses two of the targets of promoting al Qaeda propaganda, but states that surveillance of the three English-speakers’ communications revealed that they have “minimal terrorist contacts.”

In particular, “only seven (1 percent) of the contacts in the study of the three English-speaking radicalizers were characterized in SIGINT as affiliated with an extremist group or a Pakistani militant group. An earlier communications profile of [one of the targets] reveals that 3 of the 213 distinct individuals he was in contact with between 4 August and 2 November 2010 were known or suspected of being associated with terrorism,” the document reads. . . .

Instead, the NSA believes the targeted individuals radicalize people through the expression of controversial ideas via YouTube, Facebook and other social media websites. Their audience, both English and Arabic speakers, “includes individuals who do not yet hold extremist views but who are susceptible to the extremist message,” the document states. The NSA says the speeches and writings of the six individuals resonate most in countries including the United Kingdom, Germany, Sweden, Kenya, Pakistan, India and Saudi Arabia.

The NSA possesses embarrassing sexually explicit information about at least two of the targets by virtue of electronic surveillance of their online activity. The report states that some of the data was gleaned through FBI surveillance programs carried out under the Foreign Intelligence and Surveillance Act. The document adds, “Information herein is based largely on Sunni extremist communications.” It further states that “the SIGINT information is from primary sources with direct access and is generally considered reliable.”

According to the document, the NSA believes that exploiting electronic surveillance to publicly reveal online sexual activities can make it harder for these “radicalizers” to maintain their credibility. “Focusing on access reveals potential vulnerabilities that could be even more effectively exploited when used in combination with vulnerabilities of character or credibility, or both, of the message in order to shape the perception of the messenger as well as that of his followers,” the document argues.

Glenn Greenwald, Ryan Gallagher and Ryan Grim

The agency has been under intense scrutiny since media organizations first began describing the Snowden documents this year. Last month, The Washington Post reported on a project with the code name MUSCULAR in which the agency apparently defeated security protocols at Google and Yahoo, allowing intelligence analysts access to data that the companies and their customers had believed was secure.

Microsoft is now moving to secure its networks against similar intrusions, according to people with direct knowledge of deliberations at the company:

Top Microsoft executives are meeting this week to decide what encryption initiatives to deploy and how quickly.

Documents obtained from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden suggest — but do not prove — that the company is right to be concerned. Two previously unreleased slides that describe operations against Google and Yahoo include references to Microsoft’s Hotmail and Windows Live Messenger services. . . .

Though Microsoft officials said they had no independent verification of the NSA targeting the company in this way, general counsel Brad Smith said Tuesday that it would be “very disturbing” and a possible constitutional breach if true.

Microsoft’s move to expand encryption would allow it to join Google, Yahoo , Facebook and other major technology firms in hardening its defenses in response to news reports about once-secret NSA programs. The resulting new investments in encryption technology stand to complicate surveillance efforts — by governments, private companies and criminals — for years, experts say.

Though several legislative efforts are underway to curb the NSA’s surveillance powers, the wholesale move by private companies to expand the use of encryption technology may prove to be the most tangible outcome of months of revelations based on documents that Snowden provided to The Post and Britain’s Guardian newspaper. In another major shift, the companies also are explicitly building defenses against U.S. government surveillance programs in addition to combating hackers, criminals or foreign intelligence services.

“That’s a pretty big change in the way these companies have operated,” said Matthew Green, a Johns Hopkins University cryptography expert. “And it’s a big engineering effort.”

Craig Timberg, Barton Gellman and Ashkan Soltani

Snowden himself has gone into exile in Russia. Yet a widening group of activists who have made Berlin their home are hoping that the German government, which has protested perhaps most strongly against revelations of international spying, will grant him exile there. They describe Berlin as a haven from surveillance:

An international cadre of privacy advocates is settling in Germany’s once-divided capital, saying they feel safer here than they do in the United States or Britain, where authorities have vowed to prosecute leakers of official secrets.

Documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, who was one of former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden’s main conduits of leaked data, lives

here now. So does Jacob Appelbaum, a former spokesman for WikiLeaks. They were joined this month by Sarah Harrison, a top WikiLeaks activist who stayed at Snowden’s side for months in Moscow and now says she fears being harassed by the government if she returns to her native Britain. . . .

She planned to stay in Germany, she said, because “our lawyers have advised me that it is not safe to return home” to Britain.

For privacy advocates who have resettled in Berlin permanently, the more the merrier.

“It’s a rather inviting social climate right now,” said Diani Barreto, an American who has lived in Berlin since shortly after the wall fell in 1989 and works as an anti-surveillance advocate and artist. “Why be completely paranoid, go mad, have your house surveilled? There’s a reason people are coming here.”

Michael Birnbaum

For complete coverage of the National Security Agency, please visit this page.

Max Ehrenfreund is a blogger on the Financial desk and writes for Know More and Wonkblog.
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