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July 31, 2013

Revealed: NSA Tool "XKeyscore" Permits Warrantless Inspection of Email Metadata

This is from the Guardian, Glenn Greenwald, and Edward Snowden, so some skepticism is warranted; but then, a great deal of concern is also warranted.

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.

Now the reason I say "be skeptical" is because of agenda-driven misstatements like the following.

Greenwald's headline says this:

XKeyscore: NSA tool collects 'nearly everything a user does on the internet'

The evidence supporting this headline (CONTENT WARNING: LINKS TO SLIDE OFFICIALLY DEEMED SECRET).

You can decide if that evidence supports that headline. I rather think it does not.

However, Greenwald's breathless overstatements aside, there is a lot here that is troublesome. Much of it is stuff we already knew, but we should probably hear it all again.

When a Query is put into the system for a specific email account, XKeystore returns all the "metadata" -- addressees and, importantly, the subject line, which, of course, usually summarizes the basic content of the email -- and also scans the email for additional email addresses inside the email. Like if someone said "Contact these other parties" and then listed some emails. And even here, a slide indicates that sometimes the system makes an error and includes a few words it mistook for an email address.

Some things Greenwald reports are important to know for the public debate, though I'm not sure of what people thought the NSA has been doing all these years. For example:

The XKeyscore program also allows an analyst to learn the IP addresses of every person who visits any website the analyst specifies.

Chilling, I suppose, for some, but I have to say-- did you think the NSA was not keeping tabs on who visited certain sites thought to be propagators of terrorism? I understand the objection-- but they could use this ability to spy on anyone! -- which is true, but that's been true of every single espionage method of technology since the dawn of man.

Another important revelation, but one I find more comforting than chilling:

The XKeyscore system is continuously collecting so much internet data that it can be stored only for short periods of time. Content remains on the system for only three to five days, while metadata is stored for 30 days. One document explains: "At some sites, the amount of data we receive per day (20+ terabytes) can only be stored for as little as 24 hours."

To solve this problem, the NSA has created a multi-tiered system that allows analysts to store "interesting" content in other databases, such as one named Pinwale which can store material for up to five years.

It is the databases of XKeyscore, one document shows, that now contain the greatest amount of communications data collected by the NSA.

Slide of the big scoop and successive sieves here; CONTENT WARNING: CONTAINS SLIDE OFFICIALLY DEEMED SECRET.

Not to be Joe Blase but when this story first started to break I postulated that something like this was being done -- a large-scale dragnet of information at the first level, yes, but then maybe it was being destroyed and only the "interesting stuff" was subject to further scrutiny.

While I understand libertarian alarm bells ringing here, I also am perplexed at how people think intelligence is conducted, or how it could possibly be conducted at all under a strong libertarian regime.

I keep saying this: After 9/11, we looked back at how we had gotten here, and how our intelligence services had become so impotent. Perhaps it was a too-easy answer*, but many pointed at the Chuch Committee hearings of the 1970s and subsequent "reforms," thinking perhaps we had gone rather too far in neutering the CIA -- we had defanged it and made it harmless to ourselves, but we'd also made it virtually harmless to evil-doers as well.

I'm not so much defending this program -- I just read this article and I have barely had time to digest it let alone reflect upon it -- as urging that we not repeat this endless spasmodic cycle of overreaction to the left followed by overreaction to the right followed, inevitably, by overreaction to the left again (and on, and on, and on).


* On second reflection, that almost certainly was a too-easy answer. After 9/11, the answers came quick and easy, and mostly involved rewarding the state with more power, because it had, thusfar, surely earned our trust with it.

Apologies: Red Sweater reminded me of the problem of posting these slides -- they are officially secret and a government worker can get into major trouble by viewing them, even if they are published in the Guardian.

I completely forgot about this problem. I have now taken the slides out and linked to them with a warning.

I will not forget next time. (Last time, it was Gabe who actually cleaned it up before I was made aware of it, so I had not actually gone through this before-- Gabe just fixed it and informed me.)


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posted by Ace at 01:29 PM

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