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11 disturbing things Snowden has taught us (so far)

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11 disturbing things Snowden has taught us (so far)

  • Mike Herbst/Flickr

1) Can you hear me now?

The Guardian reported on June 6 that, according to documents leaked by Edward Snowden, the Obama administration enabled the National Security Agency to collect caller information from Verizon through a “business records” provision of the Patriot Act, established under President George W. Bush. The government ordered Verizon to hand over call information on a daily basis, including the time, location and duration of calls. The Bush administration began collecting such information in October 2001 from AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth, which USA Today reported in 2006.

The consequence

While US officials sought to reassure the public that such surveillance was legal and part of an ongoing program vital to national security, many Americans called the domestic spying an unnecessary invasion of privacy and lamented that it was even legal in the first place. A national debate quickly erupted.

2) Yes we scan

Snowden also leaked a secret 41-slide PowerPoint presentation apparently used to train US intelligence personnel. The slides detail the NSA’s involvement in a then-clandestine program called PRISM.

PRISM is the NSA effort to collect massive amounts of data from internet companies such as email content, search histories and file transfers tied to potential terrorism or espionage suspects. The PowerPoint presentation confirmed that the NSA is able to directly access the servers of "major US service providers,” describing collaboration with tech companies like YouTube, Skype, Google and Apple. Google, Apple, and others in the tech industry, however, denied awareness of the program. 

PRISM began in 2007 with Microsoft and expanded to include Apple in 2012. To be subject to PRISM surveillance, there need only be “reasonable suspicion” that one of the suspects is outside the United States. Unlike the Verizon court-ordered collaboration, the government can access live information, photos, video chats and data from social networks directly through the companies’ servers without required consent or individual court orders. One slide puts the cost of the program at $20 million per year.

The consequence

Domestically, PRISM was criticized for its ability to collect data on US citizens unintentionally. Also, the revelations coincided with a meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Barack Obama, adding tension to an already heated dialogue over cyber-espionage between the two countries. The summit in California was focused on US accusations of Chinese cyberattacks; but the US had little credibility in the wake of the Snowden leaks. China was adamant that it too was the victim of US attacks. EU countries were also brought into the mix, and European citizens now worry they have been spied upon through the PRISM program.

3) Boundless Informant

Boundless Informant is a tool that allows the NSA to compile and track the “metadata” it collects around the world. In the month of March alone, nearly 3 billion pieces of information were collected from US networks and 97 billion pieces worldwide, the Guardian reported on June 8.

A “global heat map” sorts the intelligence sources by country, type, and volume, allowing quick analysis of which countries are most targeted, as well as when the information was gathered. The program is reviewed periodically, according to the documents, with operators able to make recommendations for future improvement.

The consequence

Boundless Informant proved that despite assurances to Congress to the contrary, the NSA does keep track of the surveillance it performs on US citizens. James Clapper, director of national intelligence, defended the government’s use of the PRISM program and condemned “reckless disclosures" of its details by media. It was the first time Clapper named the program publicly. The intelligence director now faces criticism that he misled Congress when he earlier said the NSA did not have the tools to assess the extent of information gathered on US citizens. Clapper remains adamant that any information gathered on US citizens is "unwitting,” rather than the result of targeted surveillance.

4) The United States is hacking China

Snowden, speaking with The South China Morning Post, gave his first press interview with an outlet other than the Guardian after revealing himself as the source of the leaks on June 12. He said he would stay in Hong Kong until he is "asked to leave,” and said that he took up his previous role as a consultant with Booz Allen Hamilton with the intent of disseminating state secrets. (Snowden would later fly to Moscow and initiate asylum applications with more than 20 countries, many of them denied.) Snowden also told the South China Morning Post that the NSA has been hacking mainland Chinese and Hong Kong computers since 2009. He claimed the NSA hacked networks at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, home to the Hong Kong Internet Exchange and Hong Kong’s main terminal for all internet traffic.

The consequence

Snowden's statements hardened the standoff between China and the United States over hacking. Hong Kong Secretary for Security Lai Tung-kwok announced that the Hong Kong Internet Exchange has been monitored but appears unaffected, while Chinese University announced that it has not found evidence of hacking on its servers.

The domestic debate in the United States began to reach a fever pitch. A Gallup Poll conducted between June 10 and June 11 placed support among Americans for Snowden’s actions at 44 percent, while 42 percent said his actions were wrong. Still, the poll found that 57 percent of respondents did not support the NSA’s surveillance programs as outlined in the leaked documents, while 37 percent approved.

5) Britain targets G20 members

Another PowerPoint presentation leaked on June 16 outlines how the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), Britain’s equivalent to the NSA, used real-time surveying of delegates' phone communications at the G20 Summit in 2009. The intent of the surveillance was to gain diplomatic advantage at the meetings, which came in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. British officials could obtain real-time readings of calls made by targeted persons and read their emails without notice.

There is specific mention in the slides of targeting “the Turkish finance minister and possibly 15 others in his party,” according to the Guardian. The slides suggest “senior level” members of government in Gordon Brown’s administration, Britain's prime minister at the time, were aware of the intelligence gathering and that the information “was passed to British ministers.” The presentation also alludes to such covert techniques being neither unprecedented nor unique.

The consequence

The revelations incited ire from Russia, Turkey and South Africa, all of which had diplomats directly targeted at various times during the summit. While there is consensus that many countries engage in similar acts of espionage, the publicity was nonetheless damaging to the UK government’s reputation. The news added to mounting concern in the international community about links between UK's GCHQ and the NSA’s PRISM program.

6) NSA procedures

On June 20, the Guardian revealed two more documents obtained by Snowden (viewable here and here). Signed by Attorney General Eric Holder in 2009, the documents shed light on procedures sanctioned by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. According to the documents, the NSA can keep (and make use of) information inadvertently gathered on US citizens for a period of up to five years — without a warrant — but only if the information is deemed to be relevant in preventing national security threats or to aid further investigations. The information can be sent to allied governments or foreign organizations, so long as the person’s identity is anonymous.

The consequence

While the documents outline the circumstances the NSA must destroy data collected from US citizens, as well as the rigorous steps analysts are supposed to take to make sure a target is outside the United States, they also reveal several ways the NSA can continue to use data collected on US citizens. The revelations appear to contradict statements by Obama and others that the NSA cannot access data on US citizens without a warrant.

Patrick McFarland, inspector general for the US Office of Personnel Management, meanwhile, announced an ongoing probe into whether a proper background check was conducted before Snowden was given a Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information-level clearance.

The investigation focused on the operations of US Investigations Services (USIS), a Virginia-based information and security company employed by the government to conduct background checks. US government officials came under fire during a Senate subcommittee hearing investigating why the NSA hired Snowden despite discrepancies on his resume. Booz Allen Hamilton noted potential issues but failed to act and USIS, which screened Snowden for his government security clearance before his work with Booz Allen Hamilton, was similarly unsuccessful in acting on any suspicous elements.

7) Friends who hack together stay together

The Guardian revealed slides on June 21 created by the UK's GCHQ with titles like “Mastering the Internet” and “Global Telecoms Exploitation.” The slides outline Tempora, an 18-month-old program the GCHQ uses to store metadata for up to 30 days and content data for up to three days, allowing the agency to sift through reams of information legally.

The documents show the extent to which the GCHQ has been able to tap 200 fiber-optic cables laid beneath the Atlantic Ocean, potentially accessing over “21 petabytes of communications data a day.” 

The slides indicate that private companies are required to give GCHQ discreet access to tap the cables. The United Kingdom shared that information with the NSA beginning in 2011, giving the US spy agency unlimited access to GCHQ data. The slides show that “850,000 NSA employees and US private contractors with top secret clearance had access to GCHQ databases.”

The consequence

Officials and private citizens raised concerns on both sides of the Atlantic that there is insufficient oversight and limited restrictions on the UK’s fiber-optic surveillance system. The close-knit relationship between the US and UK intelligence agencies, as well as the NSA’s unfiltered access to Britain’s world-leading cyber-surveillance stores, came under heightened scrutiny. Some diplomats worried that the revelations could negatively impact EU-US trade discussions, and that China-US cybersecurity talks, already on a tentative footing, could suffer as well.

8) NSA targets China's largest research hub and major telecommunications provider

Speaking to The South China Morning Post, Snowden said on June 23 that the NSA has hacked into computer networks at Tsinghua University an unknown number of times. Snowden said on a single day in January 63 computers and servers were hacked. Snowden argued that the internal and external IP addresses he disclosed could only come from hacking or physical access to the computers.

The facility at Tsinghua University is one of six backbone networks that comprise the China Education and Research Network (CERNET), through which internet data for millions of Chinese can be accessed. The system was the first of its kind and is now the largest national research hub in the world. It is owned by the Ministry of Education and maintained by the university and other colleges.

The South China Morning Post also published the allegation from Snowden that US agents hacked the Hong Kong headquarters of Pacnet, a privately-owned company that provides the majority of fiber-optic cables in the Asia Pacific and has stations across the region. Most Pacnet cables bring internet connections to and from the United States, where some of the world’s largest cloud computing and internet search engines are based.

The consequence

Following Snowden’s latest revelations, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs created a new office for handling “diplomatic activities involving cyber security.” Chinese diplomats said China has been the victim of US hacking many times before, and that the issue would be discussed as part of a US-China “strategic and security dialogue.” Despite concerns that the issue could derail any progress diffusing tension over cybersecurity issues, talks between the two countries were set to continue.

9) Fail-safe switch

Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian journalist who received Snowden’s first leak, told The Daily Beast that the rest of Snowden’s files have been disseminated around the world. If something unforeseen befalls Snowden, Greenwald reported, more information will inevitably be leaked.

Greenwald said that though the still-secret documents are encrypted, Snowden has made arrangements for the passwords to reach those with the files if he is unable to access them himself.

Greenwald also said Snowden gave him many more documents than those so far released and believes Snowden has even more on top of that. The documents are said to be stored on four laptops in Snowden’s possession. Greenwald said he does not wish to publish any details of the NSA’s surveillance systems that could foster or enable security breaches, nor does Snowden. 

The consequence

The fact that Snowden made multiple copies of the classified intelligence he carries created renewed angst among US officials. New questions were raised as to whether the US intelligence community can adequately stem the current leak and prevent future breaches from occurring.

10) NSA surveils Europe

German news magazine Der Spiegel revealed on June 29 it had seen part of a 2010 document, obtained by Snowden, showing that the NSA spied on European citizens and EU officials.

The document reportedly specifies Europeans as a “location target,” with Germans singled out as a major focus of US eavesdropping. The document also mentions telecommunications hacking — first reported by EU officials five years ago — of the EU Council of Ministers and the European Council at the Justus Lipsius Building in Brussels. Calls from an NSA-occupied building at the NATO headquarters outside of Brussells, according to the document, were traced to the Lipsius Building. 

The consequence

Europeans erupted in anger over the new allegations. German Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger said: "If the media reports are accurate, then this recalls the methods used by enemies during the Cold War."

Grievences with the US surveillance program were particularly evident in Germany where, after a frank conversation between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Obama during his visit to Berlin earlier in the month, cybersecurity was a hot topic.  

11) Dozens of embassies hacked

On July 1, The Guardian revealed a 2007 document that named 38 embassies and missions that were “targets” of US surveillance, including the EU embassy in Washington and its mission in New York. 

It was unclear, according to The Guardian, whether those on the list were targets of the NSA only, or if agencies like the CIA and FBI were also watching them. The document described bugging fax machines with listening devices and listed the names of programs like “Wabash,” an operation directed at the French embassy in Washington. 

The list of countries targeted was not limited to EU members or the traditional enemies of the United States, but instead includes the likes of India and Mexico, as well as Greece and Turkey. Gaining insider knowledge of diplomatic relations between the targeted states and the United States was the primary goal of the targeted surveillance, The Guardian reported.

The consequence

The intelligence leak may have jeopardized the largest attempted free trade agreement in the world, with negotiations between the EU and United States set to begin on July 8 in Washington, DC on a new free trade pact. French President Francois Hollande made public his anger over the covert operations, saying that any future negotiations will be contingent on the United States ceasing all unauthorized surveillance of EU buildings and personnel. US officials have tried to smooth over the dispute, but the success of the trade agreement may still hang in the balance.

This article originally appeared on GlobalPost.

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