New revelations about NSA surveillance systems show that it was enough to fill in a short ‘justification’ form before gaining access to any of billions of emails, online chats, or site visit histories through a vast aggregation program called XKeyscore.
The structure of XKeyscore, leaked by the UK’s Guardiannewspaper, is sourced from a classified internal presentation from 2008 and a more recent Unofficial User Guide, presumably obtained by Edward Snowden when he was a contractor for the National Security Agency in the past year.
It shows that XKeyscore – then located on 750 servers around 150 sites worldwide – is a vast collection and storage program that served as the entry point for most information that was collected by the NSA. The Guardian claims that in one 30-day period in 2012 the program acquired 41 billion records.
The information is not just metadata – depersonalized analytical usage statistics that allow spies to spot patterns – but includes almost all types of personal information. Using almost any piece of personal data on a subject – an email address, or the IP address of a computer – an agent could look up all online user activities, such as Google map searches, website visits, documents sent through the internet or online conversations. The service operates both, in real time, and using a database of recently stored information.
All that appears to have been necessary to log into the system is to fill in a compulsory line on a form that gave a reason for why a certain person needed to be investigated. The form was not automatically scanned by the system or a supervisor, and did not require a US legal warrant, as long as the person whose name was typed in was a foreigner (even if his interactions were with a US citizen).
The slides appear to vindicate security specialist Edward Snowden’s claims made during the original video he recorded in Hong Kong last month.
“I, sitting at my desk, could wiretap anyone, from you or your accountant, to a federal judge or even the president, if I had a personal email,” he claimed then.
Mike Rogers, the Republican chairman of the House intelligence committee later said that Snowden was “lying”.
The NSA has issued a statement to the Guardian, which does not now appear to deny the capabilities of XKeyscore, but merely to defend its use.
“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,” said the NSA.