What the NSA leaks proved about surveillance

Analysis: U.S. knows about citizens’€™ phone calls and emails and spies on allied foreign governments and companies

National Security Agency headquarters in Fort Meade, Md.
Trevor Paglen

On June 5, 2013, The Guardian revealed the first documents, culled from tens of thousands, about the United States’ and U.K.’s surveillance programs, leaked by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden. At the time, only a handful of people at The Guardian and The Washington Post had any idea how many more disclosures were to come.

Eight months later, media outlets around the world have published more than 100 revelations in over a dozen languages. We now know that the NSA has tracked private American citizens’ phone calls, emails and social connections; monitored Internet traffic in and out of the U.S.; and spied on allied countries and foreign companies alike. What we have learned so far suggests that the agency has gone from protecting national security to facilitating the United States’ political and economic advantage on the world stage.

Some of the information contained in the Snowden files is totally new. Other documents provided written proof of the existence of surveillance programs that journalists had already disclosed or confirmed serious accusations made by other whistle-blowers. Many previous stories about the long arm of government surveillance failed to break into the mainstream, but the Snowden cache changed that overnight.

“People who were paying close attention to this stuff were dismissed as conspiracy theorists until very recently,” explains Kade Crockford, director of the Technology for Liberty project at the ACLU of Massachusetts.

Given the massive amount of information being released, even devoted news junkies have felt overwhelmed. Al Jazeera’s comprehensive timeline of every Snowden revelation includes short summaries along with links to the original articles, but overload is inevitable. Highlighting the key details and making sense of the revelations’ global impact is no small feat.

Surveilling the people

The releases began with the publication of a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court order requiring Verizon to hand over its U.S. customers’ telephone metadata — whom they called and when — to the FBI for inclusion in a massive NSA database. Administration officials have consistently downplayed this program’s significance. However, phone metadata can reveal even more than what people say or write. In January, amid widespread criticism, President Barack Obama proposed new restrictions on the program.

The day after the Verizon story broke, The Guardian reported on the NSA’s PRISM program, which gives it direct access to user data from U.S. tech companies such as Google, Yahoo, Skype, Facebook and Microsoft. Since then, we’ve learned that the NSA collected Americans’ email metadata for a decade, creates maps of some Americans’ social connections, is searching the content of emails and text messages into and out of the country, spies on users in online games and even monitored email traffic in and out of Salt Lake City during the 2002 Winter Olympics.

While the NSA denies that it is collecting Americans’ cellphone location data, the organization admitted collecting such information from 2010 to 2011 as part of a test program. “This may be something that is a future requirement for the country,” NSA Director General Keith Alexander told a Senate hearing in October. “But it is not right now.”

In December, The Washington Post revealed that the NSA is indiscriminately collecting enormous amounts of foreign cellphone location data. An agency lawyer told the Post that, while the program is aimed outside the U.S., Americans’ cellphone location information is not protected by the Fourth Amendment.

Traditional espionage targets foreign individuals, organizations and governments. By contrast, the NSA collects almost everything that passes through the massive communication networks that carry most of the world’s Internet and telephone data. Computer algorithms channel this flood of information into databases that store everything from email address books and buddy lists to online metadata, text messages and even information collected by smartphone apps.

The agency also taps into specific foreign data connections. In October, The Washington Post revealed that the NSA has tapped into the connections that link Google, Yahoo and Microsoft data centers outside the U.S., giving it unencrypted access to users’ emails, chat messages, documents, Web searches and more.

The agency cannot legally collect much of this data on Americans. But data does not have borders. An email between two Google or Yahoo users in the United States, for example, can travel through one of these companies’ data centers outside the country. The same is true of many other types of data the NSA regularly collects outside the United States.

“NSA’s activities are directed against foreign intelligence targets in response to requirements from U.S. leaders in order to protect the nation and its interests from threats such as terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction,” an NSA representative told The Guardian in September. However, agency officials admit that its foreign-intelligence programs inevitably sweep up millions of innocent Americans’ communications.

When that happens, the NSA must erase the U.S. data, but there is a long list of exceptions — for example, if it cannot be separated out, is encrypted, contains “usable intelligence” or could help the agency better understand and compromise other communications systems. There is even a loophole that allows NSA analysts to search Americans’ data without a warrant.

The agency cannot legally collect much of this data on Americans. But data does not have borders.

It is also clear that the NSA directs its immense capabilities against more than just serious security threats like terrorism or nuclear proliferation. In November, The New York Times published the NSA’s classified 2007 strategic mission list. Its priorities included securing energy supply, diplomatic power, economic advantage and foreign technology wherewithal.

Other revelations from the Snowden documents confirm the NSA’s interest in geopolitical espionage. In June, The Guardian reported that the NSA and the British intelligence agency GCHQ spied on diplomats at the 2009 London G-20 summit in order to gain a competitive advantage for the United States in trade negotiations with Turkey and South Africa. The agency even spied on Al Jazeera in order to uncover journalists’ sources. Reports in the Brazilian magazine Epoca show how the NSA has spied on U.S. allies’ diplomats in order to give America the upper hand in negotiations over Iran and Venezuela.

Nor are journalists and private companies beyond the NSA’s reach. A major report in September revealed that in addition to spying on Google, the agency has snooped on Chinese technology firm Huawei and the Brazilian oil company Petrobras, among others. The Swedish television network SVD reported in December that the Swedish government monitors Russian oil companies on behalf of the NSA. Other reports on the NSA’s mass surveillance in allied countries like France, Italy and Mexico have also hinted at economic motives.

“If there’s information at (German technology firm) Siemens that’s beneficial to U.S. national interests — even if it doesn’t have anything to do with national security — then they’ll take that information nevertheless,” Snowden said of the NSA during a recent interview with German public television broadcaster ARD.

As The Washington Post’s Andrea Peterson wrote in her summary of the Snowden leaks, “This list makes it seem like there is hardly anything the NSA isn’t doing.” Internal agency documents describe its desire to access data from “anyone, anytime, anywhere” and to collect “pretty much everything it can.”

Administration officials argue those powers are necessary for national security. But in a world where threats to the United States’ diplomatic position or access to foreign oil rank alongside the threat of terrorism, there is a thin line between maintaining security and attaining power. Many are beginning to wonder exactly which is the NSA’s main function.

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