What is XKeyscore, and can it ‘eavesdrop on everyone, everywhere’?

The Guardian: XKeyscore: NSA tool collects ‘nearly everything a user does on the internet‘   Apparently XKeyscore is a tool the NSA uses to sift through massive amounts of data. Critics say it allows the NSA to dip into people’s ‘most private thoughts’ – a claim key lawmakers reject. 

XKeyscore gives ‘widest-reaching’ collection of online data
NSA analysts require no prior authorization for searches
Sweeps up emails, social media activity and browsing history

This photo shows an aerial view of the NSA’s Utah Data Center in Bluffdale, Utah. The long, squat buildings span 1.5 million square feet, and are filled with super-powered computers designed to store massive amounts of information gathered secretly from phone calls and e-mails.  Rick Bowmer/AP/File

Christian Science Monitor: Top-secret documents leaked to The Guardian newspaper have set off a new round of debate over National Security Agency surveillance of electronic communications, with some cyber experts saying the trove reveals new and more dangerous means of digital snooping, while some members of Congress suggested that interpretation was incorrect.

The NSA’s collection of “metadata” – basic call logs of phone numbers, time of the call, and duration of calls – is now well-known, with the Senate holding a hearing on the subject this week. But the tools discussed in the new Guardian documents apparently go beyond mere collection, allowing the agency to sift the through the haystack of digital global communications to find the needle of terrorist activity.

The concern is that the capabilities could be misused or misdirected at innocents. In revealing the NSA metadata program, leaker Edward Snowden told the Guardian in June: “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 e-mail.”

Rep. Mike Rogers (R) of Michigan, chairman of the House intelligence committee, rejected that claim. “It’s impossible for him to do what he was saying he could do.”

But the new Guardian leak appears to indicate something at least close to such capability. The program, called XKeyscore, is the “widest-reaching” Internet surveillance system, according to one of several analyst “training” documents, which included a 32-slide presentation leaked to The Guardian. An analyst has to enter only an individual e-mail address – along with a “justification” inserted into another field on the screen – to get a trove of personal e-mail sorted by time period, say analysts who reviewed the slides for the Monitor.

The program can also apparently determine which computers visited a website and when, as well as searching chats, usernames, buddy lists, and cookies. One slide in an XKeyscore document features corporate logos of a number of familiar online social media companies, saying the program lets analysts see “nearly everything a typical user does on the Internet.”

Another slide illustrates how an analyst can use the program to search “within bodies of e-mails, WebPages and documents.”  At that point, another NSA tool called DNI Presenter is then “used to read the content of stored emails, also enables an analyst using XKeyscore to read the content of Facebook chats or private messages,” according to the Guardian article. 

“What stands out about XKeyscore is the ease with which an NSA analyst can dip into people lives, their most private thoughts,” says James Bamford, an NSA critic who has written several books detailing the agency’s inner workings.

In addition, the amount of information that XKeyscore searches and stores is massive. During a 30-day period in 2012, it collected and stored about 41 billion total records, one slide document asserts. That is a testament to the NSA’s growing capability to collect data, leading to the need for a huge new data storage facility in Bluffdale, Utah, which should begin operations this fall.

“I don’t think they have the capacity to figure out everything they want to keep, so they’re storing it all, so they can go back and get it,” says William Binney, a former NSA mathematician turned whistle-blower who worked for the agency for four decades.

The implications of having all that data to search with a powerful tool like XKeyscore are large, Mr. Bamford says.

“You just fill in an e-mail address or whatever, then how much data you want – a week, a month – then up pops all my e-mail,” he says. “It’s basically what [author George] Orwell warned about. This agency now has the capability, basically, to eavesdrop on everyone, everywhere. And that’s basically what’s happening.”

Such comments are drawing exasperated responses from government officials and lawmakers with oversight responsibilities.

“As we’ve explained, and the intelligence community has explained, allegations of widespread, unchecked analyst access to NSA collection data are false,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said Thursday.

Testifying before Congress, NSA officials have said they have “minimization procedures” to properly handle material on Americans that is caught up in the electronic search.

“Look, it’s just not possible for analysts to just go tromping around through peoples’ e-mails,” says James Lewis, a cybersecurity expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “The idea that you have people just sitting there and reading e-mails is just silly. There are minimization procedures and audits and other mechanisms that prevent this. Yes, they collect a lot of data, but there has to be some reason and authorization to read it.”

NSA officials, lawmakers, and the White House were quick to throw cold water on the leaked document and the Guardian report.         

“Allegations of widespread, unchecked analyst access to NSA collection data are simply not true,” the NSA said in statement Thursday. “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.”

Representative Rogers and Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland, the top Democrat on the House intelligence committee, joined a group of lawmakers meeting with President Obama Thursday on the issue.

“The latest in the parade of classified leaks published today is without context and provides a completely inaccurate picture of the program,” the two congressmen said in a joint statement.

Officials have also noted the program’s success at finding terrorists. One of the new leaked documents, the 32-slide presentation, asserts that by 2008, 300 terrorists had been captured using intelligence from Xkeyscore.

Still, the NSA and its backers in Washington remain under fire, with polls showing public concern over the surveillance programs growing. But to other experts who have been watching surveillance trends, the idea of global surveillance by the US and others is nothing new – even if it has now reached worrying levels, with the leaked documents showing Xkeyscore sitting alongside other programs with operational code names like Marina, Pinwale, Trafficthief, about which little is known.

“Nothing I’ve seen so far that Edward Snowden has released is a surprise for people that work in the industry, even though I am concerned about it,” says Jonathan Logan, a network security consultant who co-authored a 2009 study on global digital espionage. “The good thing about this [Snowden] release is that we finally can point to an outside source confirming what we’ve been saying for the last 15 years.” 

XKeyscore map

One presentation claims the XKeyscore program covers ‘nearly everything a typical user does on the internet’

NSA’s XKeyscore program – read one of the presentations

Spying on America – Thor to O’Reilly: My Contacts Tell Me Government is Recording All Phone Calls – Updated

How will Obama defend secret NSA program in court? Letter offers clue.

Books:

Hidden Order: A Thriller (Kindle)

A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State (Kindle)

Rise of the Warrior Cop (Kindle)

1984 and Animal Farm (Kindle)

Related:

Russia gives Snowden asylum, Obama-Putin summit in doubt

Bradley Manning found not guilty of aiding the enemy, convicted on other charges

Video: Is Edward Snowden a Hero? A Debate With Journalist Chris Hedges & Law Scholar Geoffrey Stone

Video: Greenwald on Fox : Obama Targeting Snowden ‘To Intimidate Future Whistle Blowers’

Video: Glenn Beck Justin Amash Interview On Nsa Surveillance

Rep. James Sensenbrenner Eyes the Technology War: America in Gulag

The Internet is a Surveillance State

The NSA Has Been Targeting Not Just the U.S. But Germany… Europe… the World

The Power Elite Think You, Average Americans, Are Stupid

About Ask Marion

I am a babyboomer and empty nester who savors every moment of my past and believes that it is the responsibility of each of us in my generation and Americans in general to make sure that America is as good or even a better place for future generations as it was for us. So far... we haven't done very well!! Favorite Quotes: "The first 50 years are to build and acquire; the second 50 are to leave your legacy"; "Do something that scares you every day!"; "The journey in between what you once were and who you are becoming is where the dance of life really takes place". At age 62 I find myself fighting inoperable uterine Cancer and thanks to the man upstairs and the prayers from so many people including many of my readers from AskMarion and JustOneMorePet... I'm beating it. After losing our business because of the economy and factors related to the re-election of President Obama in 2012 followed by 16-mos of job hunting, my architect-trained husband is working as a trucker and has only been home approximately 5-days a month since I was diagnosed, which has made everything more difficult and often lonely... plus funds are tight. Our family medical deductible is 12K per year for two of us; thank you ObamaCare. But thanks to donations from so many of you, we are making ends meet as I go through treatment while taking care of my father-in-law who is suffering from late stage Alzheimer's and my mother-in-law who suffers from RA and onset dementia as well as hearing loss, for which there are no caretaker funds, as I continue the fight here online to inform and help restore our amazing country. And finally I need to thank a core group of family, friends, and readers... all at a distance, who check in with me regularly. Plus, I must thank my furkids who have not left my side through this fight. You can see them at JustOneMorePet.
This entry was posted in Asshats, Big Brother, Common Sense, Computers and Internet, Freedom, Knowledge Is Power, manipulation of the public, News and politics, Politics, Wake Up, Watch the Other Hand, You Be the Judge. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to What is XKeyscore, and can it ‘eavesdrop on everyone, everywhere’?

  1. Pingback: Spying on America – Thor to O’Reilly: My Contacts Tell Me Government is Recording All Phone Calls – Updated | askmarion

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  5. Very useful data. Hope to notice more articles soon!

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