Is There Anything Left for the NSA to Spy On?

New leaks from Edward Snowden portray an agency breaking into systems it already had obtained legal access to.

National Journal
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Brian Resnick, Matt Berman and Dustin Volz
Oct. 30, 2013, 9:11 a.m.

There’s a new leak out today from Ed­ward Snowden and The Wash­ing­ton Post. And it just con­firms the man­tra of 2013: If you thought the last leak was big, just wait for the next one. Today we learn that the NSA drag­net can cap­ture the cloud.

“Two en­gin­eers with close ties to Google ex­ploded in pro­fan­ity when they saw the draw­ing. ‘I hope you pub­lish this,’ one of them said.”

The fit­tingly named pro­gram, MUS­CU­LAR, secretly sends “mil­lions of re­cords every day from Ya­hoo and Google in­tern­al net­works to data ware­houses at the agency’s Fort Meade headquar­ters.”

The new dis­clos­ure is stun­ning — even for a Snowden leak — be­cause the Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency already pos­sesses court-ap­proved au­thor­ity to col­lect vast amounts of on­line com­mu­nic­a­tion re­cords, thanks to Sec­tion 702 of the For­eign In­tel­li­gence Sur­veil­lance Act. Le­gis­la­tion in­tro­duced this week by Rep. Jim Sensen­bren­ner, R-Wis., and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., would lim­it the gov­ern­ment’s au­thor­ity for such data-sweep­ing un­der the sec­tion.

As The Post notes, “The in­filt­ra­tion is es­pe­cially strik­ing be­cause the NSA, un­der a sep­ar­ate pro­gram known as PRISM, has front-door ac­cess to Google and Ya­hoo user ac­counts through a court-ap­proved pro­cess.” However, when asked about the Post art­icle, NSA Dir­ect­or Keith Al­ex­an­der told Bloomberg News Wed­nes­day “This is not NSA break­ing in­to any data­bases. It would be il­leg­al for us to do that. And so I don’t know what the re­port is, but I can tell you fac­tu­ally we do not have ac­cess to Google serv­ers, Ya­hoo serv­ers.”

So why go through a stealth back­door, too? Be­cause get­ting ad­di­tion­al in­form­a­tion from the cloud is ap­par­ently too much for the NSA to pass up.

The leaks come just a day after seni­or in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials test­i­fied be­fore Con­gress and ex­pressed skep­ti­cism that the White House did not know about NSA’s over­seas eaves­drop­ping that has in­cluded tap­ping com­mu­nic­a­tions of for­eign heads of state. Both Al­ex­an­der and Dir­ect­or of Na­tion­al In­tel­li­gence James Clap­per in­dic­ated that the White House is aware, at least gen­er­ally, of much of the agency’s spy­ing.

The in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials also said that a lot of this work oc­curs with the col­lab­or­a­tion of for­eign gov­ern­ments. The data col­lec­tion abroad “rep­res­ents in­form­a­tion that we and our NATO al­lies have col­lec­ted in de­fense of our coun­tries and in sup­port of mil­it­ary op­er­a­tions,” Al­ex­an­der said. MUS­CU­LAR is run in con­junc­tion with Bri­tain’s GCHQ.

In case this wasn’t already com­pletely ob­vi­ous, the MUS­CU­LAR rev­el­a­tion is not go­ing over well with Google. The Snowden-leaked NSA slides that de­scribe the pro­gram make it seem as if the gov­ern­ment is in­ten­tion­ally con­grat­u­lat­ing it­self for out-think­ing the In­ter­net co­los­sus:

In an NSA present­a­tion slide on “Google Cloud Ex­ploit­a­tion,” however, a sketch shows where the “Pub­lic In­ter­net” meets the in­tern­al “Google Cloud” where their data resides. In hand-prin­ted let­ters, the draw­ing notes that en­cryp­tion is “ad­ded and re­moved here!” The artist adds a smi­ley face, a cheeky cel­eb­ra­tion of vic­tory over Google se­cur­ity.

Two en­gin­eers with close ties to Google ex­ploded in pro­fan­ity when they saw the draw­ing. “I hope you pub­lish this,” one of them said.

Google, of course, is not alone in hav­ing something to shout pro­fan­it­ies about.

To re­cap, from the leaked files of Ed­ward Snowden we’ve learned that the NSA tracks phone-call metadata; tracks email cor­res­pond­ence tak­ing place in for­eign coun­tries (and ap­par­ently has the tech­nic­al cap­ab­il­it­ies to do the same with U.S. cit­izens); has a sys­tem that al­lows ana­lysts to dig through these ex­pans­ive data­bases; does mass col­lec­tions of ad­dress books; some­times in­ter­cepts the com­mu­nic­a­tions of world lead­ers; and has dir­ect taps in­to the most widely used In­ter­net ser­vices.

But wait, there’s more. Al­most sim­ul­tan­eously, Al Jaz­eera pub­lished NSA doc­u­ments ob­tained through a Free­dom of In­form­a­tion Act re­quest coach­ing of­fi­cials to use the ter­ror­ist at­tacks of Sept. 11, 2001, as jus­ti­fic­a­tion when pub­licly dis­cuss­ing sur­veil­lance pro­grams.

What’s next?


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