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Quick question: when you found out about the NSA’s online spying programme PRISM, did you shut down your Google, Facebook and Yahoo! accounts? Nope? Well even if you had, it wouldn’t matter. It turns out the US intelligence agency can collect “nearly everything a typical user does on the internet”.
According to the latest batch of documents provided to The Guardian by former NSA contractor turned whistle-blower Edward Snowden show that the agency has a top-secret program capable of trawling through vast databases of emails and online chats without any authorisation.
The program, called XKeyscore, is apparently the “widest reaching” means of gathering intelligence online. Learning about its existence also sheds light on a statement Snowden made during his first video interview with The Guardian:
“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”.
As the publication notes however, US lawmakers have fervently denied this 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.”
The latest leak however, includes training documents for XKeyscore and one presentation claims that the program can track “nearly everything a typical user does on the internet”, including what websites they’ve visited, the content of their emails, the searches they’ve put in and even their metadata.
The email functionality is particularly scary and allows the agency to conduct “searches within bodies of emails, webpages and documents”, including the “To, From, CC, BCC lines” and the “‘Contact Us’ pages on websites”.
And if you’re wondering how the NSA could possibly track your browsing habits, well the program allows analysts to learn the IP addresses of anyone who visits any website they specify.
Oh and if you’re wondering exactly how much data the NSA might have on the world’s internet users, consider this:
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.”
One of the documents meanwhile adds: “At some sites, the amount of data we receive per day (20+ terabytes) can only be stored for as little as 24 hours.”
Perhaps the biggest implication of the program however is that it provides a neat way for the NSA to sweep up info on US citizens without breaking any domestic laws. ACLU’s deputy legal director Jameel Jaffer told the Guardian, “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”.
In a statement to The Guaridan however, the NSA said:
“NSA’s activities are focused and specifically deployed against – and only against – legitimate foreign intelligence targets in response to requirements that our leaders need for information necessary to protect our nation and its interests.
“XKeyscore is used as a part of NSA’s lawful foreign signals intelligence collection system.
“Allegations of widespread, unchecked analyst access to NSA collection data are simply not true. 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 … In addition, there are multiple technical, manual and supervisory checks and balances within the system to prevent deliberate misuse from occurring.
“Every search by an NSA analyst is fully auditable, to ensure that they are proper and within the law.
“These types of programs allow us to collect the information that enables us to perform our missions successfully – to defend the nation and to protect US and allied troops abroad.”