Over the past few months there have been numerous leaks of information about the National Security Agency (NSA) and the massive surveillance programs the government has been running. Most people realize that whistleblower Edward Snowden helped expose these leaks, but who else spoke out and what exactly did Snowden risk his livelihood to reveal? With so many media sources and government representatives all saying different things, it’s hard to grasp what’s real and what’s an excuse. That’s why we put together this list full of what you really need to know; in other words, what is the NSA doing, and to whom?
1) What is “metadata”?
The term “metadata” has been thrown around plenty by politicians and news sources when discussing the recent NSA revelations, but what exactly does that mean? According to TechTerms.com, metadata literally means “data about data” and is used in a few different ways. When talking about “NSA metadata,” there’s a lot of information there. It includes information about your internet usage and your phone calls, like who you called, where you were when you made the call, and how long the phone call lasted. It also includes your phone’s SIM card number and your cell phone service provider. According to The Guardian, metadata is created every time you use your phone to place a phone call, check your email, send a text message, or even every time your phone connects to a network. Metadata is also created through small things in our everyday environments, like tiny RFID chips in passports, GPS systems in our cars, and even turnstiles in parking garages. These tiny sensors create information all around us. The NSA has been gathering this information, and according to the PEW Research Center, in 2012 more than 85% of Americans carried cell phones with them, so a lot of personal information is gathered. Even things like where we shop, how often we go through the drive through for fast food, and even where our loved ones sleep. All this is information the NSA accesses.
2) How much information is the NSA going through?
When the NSA leaks first began, the government agency began to try to calm the world down. The NSA stated that it only “touches” 1.6% of the world’s internet data. The internet is filled with information and data, in fact, it’s more than most of us could ever imagine. According to the NSA, the internet carries 1,826 petabytes of information every day. Computer Weekly explains how to understand petabytes. A single petabyte of information would be the equal of over 2,000 years of music playing continuously. Or, put another way, the average picture taken with your smartphone camera is 3MB and, when printed, is 8.5 inches wide. One single petabyte of photographs printed and placed side by side would be over 48,000 miles long, which is almost enough to wrap around the equator twice. One last example, one petabyte is enough to store the DNA of every person in the United States, the Census Bureau said that was 313.9 million people in 2012, and then clone them twice. Keep in mind almost 2,000 petabytes of information is processed by the internet daily. Using the music numbers we mentioned earlier, that would be 3,652,000 years of music every day.
Back to the NSA, and why this is something you need to know. The NSA had claimed they accessed 1.6% of the 1,826 petabytes of information processed daily online. The NSA also claimed, “of the 1.6% of the data, only 0.025% is actually selected for review. The net effect is that NSA analysts look at 0.00004% of the world’s traffic in conducting their mission—that’s less than one part in a million.” It turns out, that’s not entirely true. In fact, it was a blatant lie.
The Wall Street Journal released that the NSA actually has built a network that accesses 75% of all web traffic in the United States, and that’s just the United States. The NSA also filters phone calls made with internet technology, like Skype, and uses telecom companies to “filter” content. These programs, code-named Blarney, Fairview, Oakstar, Lithium and Stormbrew, among others, gather and filter information using major telecom companies, like AT&T or Verizon. This “filtering” happens with both domestic and foreign information. In fact, the Guardian released that the NSA actually paid companies like Google, Yahoo, Facebook, and Microsoft millions of dollars to cover the costs of meeting NSA demands.
3) But what can the NSA actually see?
When Edward Snowden first revealed his information on the NSA, he made a statement that really upset government officials. “I, sitting at my desk,” Snowden told the Guardian, could “wiretap anyone, from you or your accountant, to a federal judge or even the president, if I had a personal email.”
Mike Rogers, chairperson of the House Intelligence Committee, almost instantly replied, “He’s lying. It’s impossible for him to do what he was saying he could do.”
It seems Snowden wasn’t lying. The Guardian published classified NSA training materials about a program called “XKeyscore”. So, what’s XKeyscore? According to the NSA, it’s their “widest reaching” system for developing information from the internet. The NSA even bragged about how XKeyscore covers “nearly everything a typical user does on the internet”. Not just your metadata, but using XKeyscore, NSA analysts can access your emails, your online chats, the websites you’ve visited, all in real-time. Real-time means as you’re typing, and as you’re chatting, and as you’re browsing, the NSA can access it.
4) Doesn’t the NSA only watch terrorists?
It seems that while the NSA has been trying to catch terrorists, they may have caught a few other things as well. You don’t have to be a terrorist for the NSA to start reading your emails. Actually, using XKeyscore, the NSA program we talked about earlier, the Guardian shared that any NSA analyst can access all your internet activity with just your email address, or your IP address. The NSA analysts don’t need a warrant, and you don’t have to be a suspected terrorist, they just need an email address.
It turns out; there isn’t much oversight for these NSA agents. In other words, there aren’t very many people watching the data they gather. NSA agents have even been caught using government resources to spy on their lovers, according to the Wall Street Journal. Those people weren’t terrorists, the only mistakes they made were dating someone who worked at the NSA. Not to mention the only reason the NSA agents were caught spying on their lovers was because the NSA agents reported themselves. The NSA agents who reported themselves didn’t do it because they felt guilty, they failed lie detector tests when getting their security clearance renewed. The Guardian pointed out that an NSA analyst can begin surveillance on anyone with a few “simple pull-down menus”.
In their search for terrorists, the Washington Post revealed that the NSA has also been storing and collecting emails from tens of thousands of people that have “nothing to do with terror”. There was even a secret court that met in 2011 and demanded that the NSA change their tactics. The NSA had collected emails in an unconstitutional way for years, over 50,000 emails a year, the court ruled. Americans have a Fourth Amendment right against “unreasonable searches and seizures”, and the court decided that right was violated. You should probably know that the NSA collects more than 250 million internet communications each year.
But it’s not just emails or chat logs, it’s also Facebook. In the first six months of 2013, Facebook shared that the US government demanded information on over 20,000 Facebook users. Facebook handed almost all the information over, and a lot of the Facebook users were political accounts and activists.
5) Is the NSA doing anything illegal with this information?
The short and easy answer is yes. The NSA isn’t just gathering information illegally, they’re using some of this information to take money from Americans. Thanks to Reuters, the world just found out about a top-secret branch of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) called the Special Operations Division (SOD). The SOD takes information from the NSA, and partners with the CIA, IRS, FBI, and DHS. We’ve found out that the NSA has gathered every bit of information they can on almost every American, and they’ve handed over some of that information to the SOD.
Did you know that when the DEA or some other government agency “believes an item is tied to the drug trade”, an item like houses, cash, cars, electronics, pretty much anything, they can take it. The owner of the property doesn’t have to be charged with a crime, or even have done anything wrong. The government keeps the property taken by the government, unless you can afford a long, costly legal battle to get it back. Whichever agency took the property, like the DEA or FBI, gets to keep it. We know that the NSA is taking the information gathered on Americans and giving it to the SOD. The SOD takes this information and secretly launches investigations. Enforcers are actually trained to lie and say things happened that didn’t. One agent explained to Reuters, “You’d be told only, ‘Be at a certain truck stop at a certain time and look for a certain vehicle.’”
In fact, WSFA reported that the DEA has doubled the amount of assets taken from people since 2001, when the NSA began its secretly authorized domestic spying programs.
6) Is the NSA going to stop any time soon?
Despite the outrage of many over what the NSA is doing, it doesn’t seem like there’s any plan for them to stop. The NSA is actually expanding. This fall the NSA’s Utah Data Center will officially open to those with the right security clearances. The U.S. military discusses how massive the Utah Data Center is, over 1.5 million square feet and four stories tall. To give you a bit of understanding, Global Transportation Hub says that is the same size as almost 10 city blocks. Utah’s Governor, Gary Herbert, when talking about the Utah Data Center claimed on his website it cost almost $2 billion and you could fit “10 Cabela’s stores inside”. The massive almost $2 billion data gathering complex, the one that’s 1.5 million square feet, is expected to hold less than 200 employees. That’s 7,500 square feet per employee.
Of course, the NSA’s servers will take up a lot of space. The military points out again the Utah Data Center is expected to use 65 megawatts of electricity at all times, 17 million gallons of water daily, and will be filled with supercomputers.
Remember how we talked about how big a petabyte is earlier? The Utah Data Center will be able to store yottabytes of information (I had to look up how big that is). Convert Units allows all types of conversions and tells me one yottabyte is the same as 888,178,419.7 petabytes. The 2000 years of continuous music you would hear through one petabyte? That’s 1,776,356,840,000 years of music (I rounded up) with a yottabyte. If you don’t feel like counting the zeros, that would be almost 2 trillion years of music. Believe it or not, the Utah Data Center, according to the military, will hold more than yottabytes of information. There isn’t even a number yet for just how much information the NSA will be able to store. The Utah Data Center, soon to be home to almost 200 NSA employees, will be home to a computer system three times faster than the world’s fastest supercomputer.
Another reason to believe the NSA will continue, and even expand their surveillance is the newly released NSA “black budget”. The Washington Post published the NSA’s classified budget for 2013. The NSA’s 2013 178-page budget totals $52.6 billion dollars. The Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, told the Washington Post before they published the budget, “The United States has made a considerable investment in the Intelligence Community since the terror attacks of 9/11, a time which includes wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Arab Spring, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction technology, and asymmetric threats in such areas as cyber-warfare.” Clapper added, “Our budgets are classified as they could provide insight for foreign intelligence services to discern our top national priorities, capabilities and sources and methods that allow us to obtain information to counter threats.”
7) Does it threaten the nation’s security for us to know this?
Edward Snowden released this information to the public, using numerous media sources. Snowden started his releases with Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian. Snowden left a comfortable life, making six figures a year, to make sure we could be aware this is happening. If he ever returns to the United States, he’s facing three felony charges, including espionage and theft of government property. The Wall Street Journal points out that each charge carries a maximum sentence of 10 years, meaning Snowden is facing 30 years. But just because Snowden is facing charges doesn’t mean that he did anything wrong; there are thousands of innocent people that face charges from the government every year.
The Guardian has a timeline of everything that Snowden revealed, and a lot of details about what he made public. It seems like a lot of government officials are scared about what else Snowden may reveal (he says he passed all his information to the press already, and bit by bit, they’re releasing it). It’s not just the United States that’s worried about this information, other governments are also involved. The British version of the NSA, Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), has accessed information gathered by NSA surveillance. According to The Guardian, the GCHQ was even paid hundreds of millions of dollars to do the NSA’s “dirty work”.
That’s a big part of why Snowden had to leave the United States. He’s been granted temporary asylum in Russia, but many countries are upset at him for releasing all these secrets. In fact, the United Kingdom is so worried about what the next release from Snowden may contain, they detained the significant other of Glenn Greenwald (the journalist from The Guardian). David Miranda, Greenwald’s partner, was held for nine hours while the government looked through his stuff and even stole all his electronics. Then, the UK went to The Guardian’s home office and forced them to destroy their computers.
A lot of politicians and members of the media have called Snowden a traitor for releasing this information, but a majority of Americans see him as a hero. Quinnipiac University published a poll sharing that 55% of Americans believe Snowden is a whistleblower, not a traitor. Despite the statements by politicians that the NSA needs to do this to “keep America safe”, most Americans didn’t know just how much the NSA was doing.
Russ Tice was an intelligence analyst who informed Americans in 2005 that the NSA was using the Patriot Act (passed by the Bush administration after the 9/11 attacks) to illegally wiretap politicians, diplomats, then Senator Barack Obama, and plenty of other people. The Huffington Post reports that, at the time, Bush admitted that the NSA was wiretapping “a small number of Americans”. Tice warned that the NSA was most likely gathering data on millions of Americans, but the NSA denied it. Tice also said that he believes the NSA now has the ability to “to collect all digital communications word for word.”
A lot of Americans believe the NSA has gone too far (full disclosure, I am one of them). The concept of rights seems to be just that, a concept. With the government having access to pretty much every email and every phone call, the right that is supposed to protect us against unreasonable searches and seizes seems to have disappeared. Some people say, “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear,” but that’s a straw man argument, meaning it doesn’t actually address the issue.
The government that’s watching everyone isn’t some perfect entity, it’s filled with people. People make mistakes. We already know that employees at the NSA are spying on their own lovers, what’s to stop them from spying on you interacting with your lovers? You probably wouldn’t let other people listen to personal conversations, so why would you let the government, and a bunch of strangers, listen to your personal information?
I want you to imagine something for me: a couple separated by a long distance. This happens a lot, especially with soldiers; they’re forced to leave the ones they love for months at a time. Separated by such distances, relationships become difficult. Many couples use Skype, a free online technology, to communicate with each other using voice and video. We already know that the NSA “touches” Skype, the term they so appropriately used. Do you think it’s right that they can “touch” these personal conversations and videos?
According to the government, I’m a “potential terrorist” because I talk about “individual liberties”. Do you know who else is a “potential terrorist”? Those that advocate for states’ sovereignty and even those who want “to make the world a better place” make the list. Interested in “defeating the Communists”? You are considered a “potential terrorists.”
The NSA is continuing to expand, and will continue to expand, unless we are able to stop it now. In America, we are supposed to be “innocent until proven guilty”, but I guarantee you that if the NSA listens to thousands of hours of our phone calls, they’ll find something “incriminating” on each and every one of us. Maybe you smoked a joint in high school, or maybe you didn’t pay your parking tickets, or maybe you said once, “I’ll kill them.” Maybe it isn’t you, maybe your child or friend told you about something they did, or something that happened to them. Here’s a great example: according to court documents, the state of New Jersey just decided that if you send a text message to someone who is driving, and the person gets in a car accident, you can be held liable for that accident, meaning you’ll be considered responsible. There are so many crimes now that, according to civil-liberties lawyer Harvey Silverglate, the average American breaks three felonies a day. The Wall Street Journal gives more details about how, especially with current technology, we break law after law without realizing it. We normally don’t mean to, and we don’t have criminal intent, but we break felonies every day.
In a world where you accidentally break three felonies every day, do you really want the government watching your every move? I certainly don’t…
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7 Things You Need To Know About The NSA: