Revealed: NSA program collects ‘nearly everything a user does on the internet’
Glenn Greenwald, The Guardian
Wednesday 31 July 2013 08.56 EDT
A top secret National Security Agency program allows analysts to search with no prior authorization through vast databases containing emails, online chats and the browsing histories of millions of individuals, according to documents provided by whistleblower Edward Snowden.
The NSA boasts in training materials that the program, called XKeyscore, is its “widest-reaching” system for developing intelligence from the internet.
“I, sitting at my desk,” said Snowden, could “wiretap anyone, from you or your accountant, to a federal judge or even the president, if I had a personal email”.
US officials vehemently denied this specific claim. Mike Rogers, the Republican chairman of the House intelligence committee, said of Snowden’s assertion: “He’s lying. It’s impossible for him to do what he was saying he could do.”
But training materials for XKeyscore detail how analysts can use it and other systems to mine enormous agency databases by filling in a simple on-screen form giving only a broad justification for the search. The request is not reviewed by a court or any NSA personnel before it is processed.
XKeyscore, the documents boast, is the NSA’s “widest reaching” system developing intelligence from computer networks – what the agency calls Digital Network Intelligence (DNI). One presentation claims the program covers “nearly everything a typical user does on the internet”, including the content of emails, websites visited and searches, as well as their metadata.
Analysts can also use XKeyscore and other NSA systems to obtain ongoing “real-time” interception of an individual’s internet activity.
Under US law, the NSA is required to obtain an individualized Fisa warrant only if the target of their surveillance is a ‘US person’, though no such warrant is required for intercepting the communications of Americans with foreign targets. But XKeyscore provides the technological capability, if not the legal authority, to target even US persons for extensive electronic surveillance without a warrant provided that some identifying information, such as their email or IP address, is known to the analyst.
The system is similar to the way in which NSA analysts generally can intercept the communications of anyone they select, including, as one NSA document put it, “communications that transit the United States and communications that terminate in the United States”.
One document, a top secret 2010 guide describing the training received by NSA analysts for general surveillance under the Fisa Amendments Act of 2008, explains that analysts can begin surveillance on anyone by clicking a few simple pull-down menus designed to provide both legal and targeting justifications. Once options on the pull-down menus are selected, their target is marked for electronic surveillance and the analyst is able to review the content of their communications:
Beyond emails, the XKeyscore system allows analysts to monitor a virtually unlimited array of other internet activities, including those within social media.
The quantity of communications accessible through programs such as XKeyscore is staggeringly large. One NSA report from 2007 estimated that there were 850bn “call events” collected and stored in the NSA databases, and close to 150bn internet records. Each day, the document says, 1-2bn records were added.
William Binney, a former NSA mathematician, said last year that the agency had “assembled on the order of 20tn transactions about US citizens with other US citizens”, an estimate, he said, that “only was involving phone calls and emails”. A 2010 Washington Post article reported that “every day, collection systems at the [NSA] intercept and store 1.7bn emails, phone calls and other type of communications.”
While the Fisa Amendments Act of 2008 requires an individualized warrant for the targeting of US persons, NSA analysts are permitted to intercept the communications of such individuals without a warrant if they are in contact with one of the NSA’s foreign targets.
The ACLU’s deputy legal director, Jameel Jaffer, told the Guardian last month that national security officials expressly said that a primary purpose of the new law was to enable them to collect large amounts of Americans’ communications without individualized warrants.
“The government doesn’t need to ‘target’ Americans in order to collect huge volumes of their communications,” said Jaffer. “The government inevitably sweeps up the communications of many Americans” when targeting foreign nationals for surveillance.
In a letter this week to senator Ron Wyden, director of national intelligence James Clapper acknowledged that NSA analysts have exceeded even legal limits as interpreted by the NSA in domestic surveillance.
Acknowledging what he called “a number of compliance problems”, Clapper attributed them to “human error” or “highly sophisticated technology issues” rather than “bad faith”.
However, Wyden said on the Senate floor on Tuesday: “These violations are more serious than those stated by the intelligence community, and are troubling.”