When Edward Snowden said “I, sitting at my desk” could “ wiretap anyone, from you or your accountant, to a federal judge or even the president, if I had your personal email,” Republican House intelligence committee chairman Mike Rogers tagged Snowden, who has just been granted asylum in Russia, as a liar. Newly disclosed information from Snowden’s leak proved that Snowden was indeed telling the truth.
The Guardian released a training presentation from 2008 explaining the process used by the National Security Agency to collect information about “nearly everything a user does on the internet.” The NSA used a program called XKeyscore which gives the “widest reaching” catalogue of data to the NSA. The agency calls this type of information Digital Network Intelligence (DNI), which is any data transmitted from network to network including: phone numbers, email addresses, web logins, and user internet activity.
How XKeyscore works is that its user, an NSA analyst or intelligence contractor, like Snowden, makes a query into a DNI database of information collected and stored by the NSA. Once the query is made, the analyst has unbridled access to the history and habits of any one internet user in the data queue. The reach of XKeyscore goes into the components of the broad pieces of information harbored by the NSA, as well.
For instance, an analyst can search emails in nearly every aspect, “To, From, CC, BCC lines,” as well as email bodies and the website(s) it originated from. By filling out a simple form with information to search, an analyst is able to intercept and monitor whichever target they request. XKeyscore can also surveille activity made within someone’s social media account, such as Facebook chat, by simply plugging in someone’s username.
An analyst can also select any website: Facebook, Google, Wikipedia, etc., and obtain and track the IP address of any visitor to the site. In 2007 alone, the NSA collected a dizzyingly high number of communications. That year, by using XKeyscore, the NSA collected about 850 billion “call events” and 150 billion internet records.
The Guardian has elected to black out some of the slides in the presentation that discusses XKeyscore’s processes and uses, however, as they “reveal specific NSA operations.”
The NSA was able to justify some of its its data collection by tracking domestic communications that route through foreign systems because the NSA was unable to track the origin sometimes.
Snowden comments on the NSA’s justification of mass acquisition of Americans’ phone and internet records. “It’s very rare to be questioned on our searches,” says Snowden. “And even when we are, it’s usually along the lines of: ‘let’s just bulk up the justification.’” Essentially meaning, since the NSA had no external oversight, “just keep expanding the ways we get away with collecting data.”
Joshua de Leon is a writer and researcher with Ring of Fire.