Posted in: United States

The NSA Leaks: A Summary

By | August 11, 2013

Let’s think back to June 6. That morning, The Guardian published the first story about a man named Edward Snowden, and the information he leaked while working as a contractor for the NSA.

What Was Leaked?

The Guardian reported that the NSA was collecting “metadata” on millions of Verizon Wireless customers’ phone calls; data such as call length and location. The NSA had pressured Verizon to provide them with data on an “ongoing, daily basis.” A secret court ruled in the NSA’s favor. Without the leaks, we wouldn’t have known this was going on: because the proceedings of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Courts are completely secret, the legal interpretations used to justify their decisions are also secret, as are the decisions themselves.

The phone call data is used in a program called Boundless Informant, which uses the data to look for patterns in call records to try and find potential terrorist activity. Boundless Informant started secretly under the Bush administration in 2007. The leaks indicate that its scope has only broadened since then. The Obama administration defended the program, saying it targeted foreign threats only, and that a warrant was necessary to use it domestically.

The Snowden leaks also included information about a program called PRISM, which allows the NSA and its contractors to track the internet activity—emails, messages, video calls, etc.—of foreign persons of interest, including when those persons were in contact with Americans. The information is from nine leading Internet firms: Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Skype, YouTube, Apple, Hotmail, Yahoo, and Paltalk.

new prism slide

The official line from the NSA and the White House, including sworn testimony from NSA director General Keith Alexander, was that PRISM tracks the online activity of potential foreign threats only. Leaked slides reveal that NSA officials only needed “reasonable belief”—51 percent confidence—that a target was an overseas foreign national at the time of observation.

Aside from PRISM, which took records from the above nine companies, there was another tool, “Upstream,” which physically intercepted fiber optic internet cables in order to view content. A slide instructs NSA employees, “You Should Use Both.”

Finally, we arrive at XKeyscore, the complex system that makes searching all of the data the NSA gathers possible. On July 31, Glenn Greenwald continued The Guardian‘s rolling out of Edward Snowden’s leaked PowerPoints and documents, this time with the powerful search compilation program that allows the NSA the ability to observe, including in real-time, a target’s internet activity. FISA approval is needed for U.S. persons (citizens or foreigners on U.S. soil), but not required for “Americans with foreign targets,” according to The Guardian.

XKeyscore was such an important part of the leaks because it ultimately showed the ease with which anyone in the American intelligence community could look into the virtual lives of anyone in the world. An NSA employee with training and access to the XKeyscore program could use regular search terms to look through billions of pieces of data: it’s the NSA’s version of Google for personal information, and while data collection and storage falls under different programs, XKeyscore is the tool used to sift through everything.

Why Is It Important?

So far, the Snowden leaks have established that the American intelligence community has far broader powers than many outside of that community expected. But what does it mean, and should we be concerned about it?

The primary concern shared by civil libertarians, legal experts, and Orwell aficionados alike is an idea called “mission creep,” which is the concept that the goals of a technology or organization can quickly shift away— intentionally or not—from what was originally intended.


Many fear that while almost all of the technology detailed in the Snowden leaks originated in the War on Terror, it can just as easily be transferred towards other areas where vast quantities of electronic data could prove useful, including in prosecuting criminal cases in the United States, and improperly surveiling peaceful demonstrations and activism.

Evidence that this is happening surfaced this week when the Washington Post published a story on the NSA giving phone records, secretly and illegally, to the Drug Enforcement Agency. The DEA, in order to cover up the source of their records, lied and said they came about the information in something called a “parallel construction.” When Reuters asked Nancy Gertner, a former federal judge now at Harvard Law School, what a parallel construction was, she replied, “I have never heard of anything like this at all.” More leaked slides reveal that DEA agents were ordered to cover up where they received NSA tips, should defendants ask for them.

If the DEA was given secret tips by the NSA, it’s hard to believe it stopped with them. It’s possible that law enforcement organizations down to the local level were given phone call metadata, email conversations, and much more. Of course, this paragraph is pure speculation. But the crude capitalism of law enforcement—that we should do all we can to find and prosecute the “bad guys”—sort of necessitates it, right?

What’s Next?

In a meeting with the foreign relations committee of the Brazilian Senate, Glenn Greenwald, Edward Snowden’s primary contact at the Guardian, said that he had “plenty more,” to expose about the NSA’s practices. Greenwald said that he would publish more of the documents Snowden gave him—according to Greenwald, 20,000 in total—in around 10 days time.

Whatever the documents entail, if they are as telling as they have been for the past two months, then the United States intelligence community will have even more explaining to do. And as the original justification for these programs, the September 11 attacks, fades into history, it may be time to re-examine how we carry out foreign and domestic intelligence, and intelligence policy-making.


Image Credits:,

August 11, 2013 Correction: Microsoft also participated in the PRISM program.

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