The Guardian has just revealed another aspect to NSA snooping in the form of XKeyscore. Data privacy on the websites of companies that are known to participate in NSA snooping activities is no longer the big issue. The XKeyscore program was just recently revealed through documents provided by Edward Snowden. XKeyscore is the NSA’s top secret way of collecting almost everything on a user’s online activities. It is by far the most far-reaching tool for data gathering, and the NSA is not required to secure authorization to use it.
XKeyscore Will Make Bigger Waves
Following the recent congressional inquiry into NSA spying, this information on XKeyscore is bound to make even bigger waves in the privacy-conscious community. It remains to be seen whether the use of XKeyscore will change anything as far as the congressional hearings go. It will, however, intensify public debate over the legality of the NSA’s surveillance programs and techniques.
The scary thing about XKeyscore is the ease with which the program can be used to mine huge amounts of data from very large databases. All that needs to be done is to fill out a simple form, which is not even reviewed by any NSA or court personnel to justify the search. Real-time tracking data gathering and intercepting is also possible through XKeyscore.
Denial and Justification of Snowden’s Claims
Senior intelligence officials testified to the Senate judiciary committee last Wednesday. They released classified documents in response to earlier reports on the NSA’s mass gathering of phone and other user records, and the alleged oversight of the FISA court in the matter. Snowden revealed to the Guardian in early June of this year that he had the ability to wiretap anyone connected to the Internet from the comfort of his desk at the NSA. Using only an email address, he claimed he could access user data, regardless of who the individual was.
Snowden’s claims were fervently denied, and one US intelligence official called him a liar, claiming that this type of surveillance was impossible. XKeyscore reveals that it is in fact possible, and has heated up the debate over what the government is trying to hide. XKeyscore is not the only mass surveillance tool available to NSA analysts, but it alone proves the extent to which the intelligence community can tap into the daily browsing habits of any citizen.
No Authorization Required
XKeyscore can gather data from social media, chat, browsing, emails and more, including their metadata, covering practically everything a user does online. The NSA analysts in charge of XKeyscore don’t even need authorization to go through the details of data stored on huge databases nationwide. Training materials for XKeyscore show the tool’s vast capabilities for gathering intelligence from the Internet.
By law, the NSA must have a FISA warrant to surveil a US person. But a warrant is not needed for taking data of US persons communicating with foreign individuals. Nevertheless, XKeyscore can technically target any individual, US person or otherwise. Extensive electronic surveillance without a warrant is what XKeyscore provides. With simple information like an email or IP address, an NSA analyst can in fact launch a surveillance operation on any US person, and access databases at any time, without approval or supervision. Any selector such as a name, telephone number, the language used for the internet activity, the browser, or keywords can likewise be used. The metadata is the analyst’s target as much as the content of the emails, telephone conversations, and other Internet activity. With XKeyscore, analysts can search email content without an email address, and conduct similar in-depth matching to find just about anything about anyone. One former NSA mathematician said that by 2012 the NSA had collected 20 trillion email and phone call transactions between US citizens.
James Clapper, director of national intelligence, admitted in a letter to Senator James that NSA analysts have stepped over the legal lines in conducting domestic surveillance, even the legality of it as interpreted by the NSA. Clapper claimed this was human or technical error, but Wyden said on the Senate floor on Tuesday that the violations are in fact more serious than what has been stated by the intelligence community.
True Power of XKeyscore
XKeyscore provides NSA surveillance with a much more powerful reach than was previously suspected. Public outcry over unknown, unauthorized and unsupervised mass snooping is justified. Even those publicly labeled as paranoid conspiracy theorists are vindicated by the revelation of XKeyscore’s power. For instance, a December 2012 document reveals that XKeyscore can find every email address recorded in a browsing session by both username and domain, every phone number, address book entry or signature block, webmail and chat activity including usernames, buddylists, machine specific cookies, and so much more that is supposed to be within the realm of a user’s assured account privacy.
The NSA’s system for developing intelligence from computer networks is called Digital Network Intelligence (DNI). The tool DNI Presenter is used to read content. So, yes, with XKeyscore, the NSA can read emails, private messages, chats, and any communications that are stored online. They can also monitor these in real-time. A 2007 report shows 850 billion call events and 150 billion Internet records stored in NSA databases, the daily additions reaching 1 to 2 billion. In 2010, an article from the Washington Post reported 1.7 billion communications being intercepted by the NSA daily. In 2012, at least 41 billion records were collected and stored in XKeyscore for 30 days. Most of the data that the NSA collects is kept for one to a few days, metadata being stored for the longer period of 30 days. But the XKeyscore database is capable of keeping records for 5 years.
Now more than ever, individuals are strongly encouraged to evaluate their stand on Internet privacy. It is not outside the boundaries of our basic rights to secure our privacy against mass invasion of this type. There are available tools that can easily help the ordinary Internet user to remain anonymous in the face of unauthorized and unjustified surveillance. High quality VPN encryption and tunneling technology is waiting to be put in the hands of every citizen to give them the protection they need to defend their privacy rights.