NSA surveillance scrutinized as Edward Snowden enters Russia

Scrutiny of U.S. digital surveillance operations intensified Wednesday as senators questioned the National Security Agency’s practice of collecting comprehensive records of citizens’ phone calls in a hearing and details of another NSA program, called Xkeyscore, became public:

The NSA program collecting phone records began after the September 2001 terrorist attacks and was brought under the supervision of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in 2006. But its existence remained hidden until June, when the Guardian newspaper in Britain published a classified FISC order to a U.S. phone company to turn over to the NSA all call records. Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked the order to the newspaper.

On Wednesday, the Guardian published new documents provided by Snowden that outlined previously unknown features of an NSA data-retrieval system called XKeyscore. The newspaper reported that the search tool allowed analysts to “search with no prior authorization through vast databases containing emails, online chats and the browsing histories of millions of individuals.”

NSA slides describing the system published with the Guardian article indicated that analysts used it to sift through government databases, including Pinwale, the NSA’s primary storage system for e-mail and other text, and Marina, the primary storage and analysis tool for “metadata.” Another slide described analysts using XKeyscore to access a database containing phone numbers, e-mail addresses, log-ins and Internet user activity generated from other NSA programs.

The newspaper said the disclosures shed light on Snowden’s claim that the NSA’s surveillance programs allowed him while sitting at his desk to “wiretap anyone, from you or your accountant, to a federal judge or even the president, if I had a personal ­e-mail.” U.S. officials have denied that he had such capability.

In a statement responding to the Guardian report, the NSA said “the implication that NSA’s collection is arbitrary and unconstrained is false. NSA’s activities are focused and specifically deployed against — and only against — legitimate foreign intelligence targets.” The agency further said: “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. . . . Not every analyst can perform every function, and no analyst can operate freely. Every search by an NSA analyst is fully auditable, to ensure that they are proper and within the law.” . . .

The documents fueled more concern about the program’s scope among civil liberties advocates who are pressing the administration to release the legal rationale that might explain what makes such large numbers of records relevant to an authorized investigation. Perhaps most alarming to some critics was the disclosure, in the order, that queries of the metadata return results that are placed into a “corporate store” that may then be searched for foreign intelligence purposes with fewer restrictions.

Ellen Nakashima

The XKeyscore program is apparently still hiring, writes Max Fisher:

Just two weeks ago, Virginia-based defense contractor SAIC posted a job listing for “XKEYSCORE Systems Engineer.” The job requires a security clearance level TS/SCI, which is short for “Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information.”

The job is clearly a technical one, requiring experience with Linux systems, computer troubleshooting and “dataflow.” This seems consistent with what the Week’s Marc Ambinder has reported about XKEYSCORE, which he’s described as “a series of user interfaces, backend databases, servers and software that selects certain types of metadata that the NSA has ALREADY collected using other methods.”

The listing appears fairly anodyne and heavily technical – it’s also not shy about naming XKEYSCORE and labeling it as a U.S. signals intelligence (SIGINT) program of the sort that would require top-secret clearance. (Ambinder says the program itself is only secret, not top secret.) But at the time it was posted it would have also been, for people outside of the field, largely indecipherable.

That SAIC would post this job listing publicly is an interesting reminder that what might appear shocking and revelatory to those of us outside the vast defense contractor world can look, rightly or wrongly, much more banal from within it.

Max Fisher

Meanwhile, in Las Vegas, NSA director Gen. Keith B. Alexander addressed a skeptical crowd at a hacking convention:

His audience? More than 3,000 cybersecurity specialists, including some of the world’s best hackers, an unruly community known for its support of civil liberties and skepticism of the government’s three-letter agencies.

Alexander praised the group as one of the brightest collections of technical minds in the world. He asked them to help the NSA fulfill its mission of protecting the country, while also protecting privacy.

“We stand for freedom,” Alexander told the crowd in a vast ballroom at Caesars Palace. “Help us to defend the country and develop a better solution.”

Some in the crowd weren’t buying, and one hacker hurled an expletive back at him.

“I’m saying I don’t trust you!” a voice shouted.

This is Black Hat, the annual hacker conference. For a few days every year, it takes center stage in the topsy-turvy worlds of cyberspace, network computing and digital security. The conference serves as a platform for hacking seminars, partying and — more and more — policy discussions about what the government and corporate worlds ought to be doing to confront problems like cyber-espionage and cyberattacks, growing threats with no clear-cut remedies.

Most Black Hat participants are actually “white hat” hackers — security professionals whose careers are built around using their technical skills to thwart the bad guys. But to do their jobs and find security gaps, they often employ the same techniques.

This year’s conference comes at an especially interesting time, as hackers from China, Russia and other countries continue relentless attacks into corporate, academic and government computers, presumably as part of spying initiatives backed by the private sector, foreign governments and criminal groups.

Robert O’Harrow Jr.

Snowden, the original source of the documents, formally entered Russian territory today after several weeks in diplomatic limbo in a Moscow airport. He is wanted in the United States on charges relating to the leaks. His lawyer, Anatoly Kucherena, showed a copy of Snowden’s newly issued travel papers to reporters:

The papers, which allowed Snowden to exit the airport for Russian soil, grant him one year of temporary asylum in the country. They were issued on Wednesday and will expire in exactly one year, on July 31, 2014.

A week ago, when it was briefly reported that Snowden would leave the airport, Kucherena had told the state-funded network RT, “He’s planning to arrange his life here. He plans to get a job. And, I think, that all his further decisions will be made considering the situation he found himself in.” With Snowden struggling to travel elsewhere, staying in Russia may be his safest option.

To stay, though, Snowden may have to stick to terms laid out publicly by Russian President Vladimir Putin: that he “stop his work aimed at inflicting damage on our American partners.” It’s not clear precisely what would cross that threshold; the Guardian released further information sourced to Snowden on Wednesday, which didn’t seem to hurt his asylum request.

Kucherena said that Snowden’s location in Moscow would remain a secret for security reasons.

Max Fisher

WikiLeaks, the transparency organization that provided legal assistance to Snowden, issued a statement on his receipt of temporary asylum. Meanwhile, although Snowden’s flight from U.S. authorities has captivated many around the world, Russians do not seem especially interested in his fate:

Russians search for the term “Snowden” about 18 percent less than the average query, Yandex reports, and they search “сноудена,” the Cyrillic version of Snowden’s name, only slightly more than average — which indicates, per Yandex, no “special attention” on the topic.

On Google, Russians search for both the English and Cyrillic versions of Snowden’s name less frequently than they search for Vitaly Milonov, the politician who has championed Russia’s controversial anti-gay laws. Searches for Milonov are indicated in yellow. Interest in Milonov and Snowden was about comparable before last week, when the anti-gay legislation passed the Duma and was signed into law.

What’s more, Google data suggest that Russians tired of Snowden’s saga soon after his appearance in the Sheremetyevo Airport — and interest in the story hasn’t really recovered since.

The data may suggest that Russians simply don’t find Snowden’s case terribly controversial — a poll reported today by the state-funded RIA Novosti news agency found that that only 3 percent of Russians “totally disapprove” of Snowden’s actions, while most felt positive or indifferent towards his asylum.

Caitlin Dewey

For more coverage of Snowden, continue reading here .

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