by Edward Snowden edited by O Society Feb 7, 2020
There’s always a danger in letting even the most qualified person rise too far, too fast, before they’ve had enough time to get cynical and abandon their idealism. I occupied one of the most unexpectedly omniscient positions in the Intelligence Community—toward the bottom rung of the managerial ladder, but high atop heaven in terms of access.
While this gave me the phenomenal, and frankly undeserved, ability to observe the IC in its grim fullness, it also left me more curious than ever about the one fact I was still finding elusive: the absolute limit of who the agency could turn its gaze against.
It is a limit set less in policy or law than in the ruthless, unyielding capabilities of what I now knew to be a world-spanning machine. Is there anyone this machine could not surveil? Is there anywhere this machine could not go?
The only way to discover the answer was to descend, abandoning my panoptic perch for the narrow vision of an operational role. The NSA employees with the freest access to the rawest forms of intelligence were those who sat in the operator’s chair and typed into their computers the names of the individuals who fall under suspicion, foreigners and US citizens alike.
For one reason or another, or for no reason at all, these individuals become targets of the agency’s closest scrutiny, with the NSA interested in finding out everything about them and their communications. My ultimate destination, I knew, was the exact point of this interface—the exact point where the state cast its eye on the human and the human remained unaware.
The program to enable this access is called XKEYSCORE, which is perhaps best understood as a search engine that lets an analyst search through all the records of your life. Imagine a kind of Google. Instead of showing pages from the public Internet returns results from your private email, your private chats, your private files, everything.
Though I’d read enough about the program to understand how it works, I hadn’t yet used it, and I realized I ought to know more about it. By pursuing XKEYSCORE, I was looking for a personal confirmation of the depths of the NSA’s surveillance intrusions—the kind of confirmation you don’t get from documents but only from direct experience.
One of the few offices in Hawaii with truly unfettered access to XKEYSCORE was the National Threat Operations Center. As luck would have it, NTOC had a position open through a contractor job at Booz Allen Hamilton, a job they euphemistically described as “infrastructure analyst.” The role involved using the complete spectrum of the NSA’s mass surveillance tools, including XKEYSCORE, to monitor activity on the “infrastructure” of interest, the Internet.
The NSA describes XKEYSCORE, in the documents I’d later pass on to journalists, as its “widest-ranging” tool, used to search “nearly everything a user does on the Internet.” The technical specs I studied went into more detail as to how exactly this is accomplished—by “packetizing” and “sessionizing,” or cutting up the data of a user’s online sessions into manageable packets for analysis. Nothing could prepare me for seeing it in action.
It is, simply put, the closest thing to science fiction I’ve ever seen in person. In science fact: an interface to allow you to type in pretty much anyone’s address, telephone number, or IP address, and then basically go through the recent history of their online activity.
In some cases, you can even play back recordings of their online sessions, so the screen you’re looking at is their screen, whatever is on their desktop. You can read their emails, their browser history, their search history, their social media postings, everything.
You can set up notifications to pop up when some person or some device you are interested in becomes active on the Internet for the day. And you can look through the packets of Internet data to see a person’s search queries appear letter by letter, since so many sites transmit each character as it is typed. It is like watching an autocomplete, as letters and words flash across the screen. The intelligence behind the typing isn’t artificial but human: this is a humancomplete.
My weeks at Fort Meade, and the short stint I put in at Booz back in Hawaii, were the only times I saw, firsthand, the abuses actually being committed I’d previously read about in internal documentation. Seeing them made me realize how insulated my position at the systems level was from the ground zero of immediate damage. I can only imagine the level of insulation of the agency’s directorship or, for that matter, of the US president.
I didn’t type the names of the agency director or the president into XKEYSCORE, but after enough time with the system I realized I could have.
Everyone’s communications are in the system. Everyone’s. I was initially fearful if I searched those in the uppermost echelons of state, I’d be caught and fired, or worse.
Yet it is surpassingly simple to disguise a query regarding even the most prominent figure by encoding my search terms in a machine format, which looks like gibberish to humans but is perfectly understandable to XKEYSCORE. If any of the auditors responsible for reviewing the searches ever bothered to look more closely, they would see only a snippet of obfuscated code, while I would be able to scroll through the most personal activities of a Supreme Court justice or a congressperson.
As far as I could tell, none of my new colleagues intended to abuse their powers so grandly, although if they had it’s not like they’d ever mention it. Anyway, when analysts think about abusing the system, they are far less interested in what it can do for them professionally than in what it can do for them personally.
This leds to the practice known as LOVEINT, a gross joke on HUMINT and SIGINT and a travesty of intelligence, in which analysts use the agency’s programs to surveil their prospective, current, and former lovers, along with objects of more casual affection, such as reading their emails, listening in on their phone calls, and stalking them online.
NSA employees know only the dumbest analysts are ever caught red-handed, and though the law states anyone engaging in any type of surveillance for personal use could be locked up for at least a decade, no one in the agency’s history was sentenced to even a day in prison for the crime.
Analysts understand the government would never publicly prosecute them because you can’t exactly convict someone of abusing your secret system of mass surveillance if you refuse to admit the existence of the system itself.
The obvious costs of such a policy became apparent to me as I sat along the back wall of vault V22 at NSA headquarters with two of the more talented infrastructure analysts, whose workspace was decorated with a seven-foot-tall picture of Star Wars’ famous wookie, Chewbacca.
I realized, as one of them explained to me the details of his targets’ security routines, intercepted nudes are a kind of informal office currency, because his buddy kept spinning in his chair to interrupt us with a smile, saying, “Check her out,” to which my instructor would invariably reply “Bonus!” or “Nice!”
The unspoken transactional rule seems to be if you find a naked photo or video of an attractive target —or someone in communication with a target— you have to show the rest of the boys, at least as long as there aren’t any women around. This is how you know you can trust each other: you share in one another’s crimes.
One thing you come to understand very quickly while using XKEYSCORE is nearly everyone in the world who’s online has at least two things in common: we have all watched porn at one time or another, and we all store photos and videos of our family.
This is true for virtually everyone of every gender, ethnicity, race, and age; from the meanest terrorist to the nicest senior citizen, who might be the meanest terrorist’s grandparent, or parent, or cousin, or you.
the above is an excerpt from Edward Snowden’s Permanent Record
For more on these illegal and unconstitutional spying methods used by the United States government to spy on its own citizens and by social media corporations to spy on its users: