Collect It All!: Newly Released NSA Documents Reveal Omnivorous Appetite for our Private Data

No Place to Hide, Glenn Greenwald’s inside account of the most significant leak of classified information in American history, is out today.  I offer a mixed review of the book in the Washington Post.  Greenwald’s book contains a fascinating account of the week in Hong Kong when Edward Snowden, with the assistance of Laura Poitras and Greenwald, first disclosed the documents; a revealing overview of what the NSA documents show about the scope of its surveillance efforts; a passionate defense of privacy in the modern era; and unfortunately, far too much hyperbole.  Greenwald tends to see the world in black and white, with no shades of gray, and that mars the effectiveness of his otherwise important arguments.

In connection with the book’s publication, Greenwald has made available a host of new documents from the Snowden leak. They are reproduced in the book, and available on his website.  Many of them provide fascinating insights into the NSA’s activities and mindset.  Perhaps the single most revealing is a PowerPoint slide the NSA showed at a 2011 meeting of the Five Eyes, the intelligence agencies of the US, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.  It sets forth the agency’s “collection posture” as “Collect it All,”  “Process it All,” “Exploit it All,” “Partner it All,” “Sniff it All” and, ultimately, “Know it All.” [See document marked p. 97 in Greenwald’s online Documents supplement]

Many of the documents give a sense of the unimaginably vast scope of the NSA’s collection efforts.  This message, from 2012, celebrates the processing by one NSA program, code-named SHELLTRUMPET, of its “one trillionth metadata record,” and goes on to note that more than half of that data was processed in the past calendar year, and that SHELLTRUMPET was at that time processing 2 billion phone calls every day. [See p. 100]

A chart showing the processing of data by FAIRVIEW, another NSA program, reports that in a single month, the program processed over 6 billion US records. [See chart p. 105]

What we don’t know, and Greenwald does not tell us, is just what it means to “process” this data. What does the NSA actually do with it all?  What information does it mine?  Apparently the Snowden leaks don’t explain that, and so Greenwald leaves it unexplained as well. But suffice it to say, it is pretty clear that the NSA is attempting to gather and process all the data that’s out there about everyone’s electronic communications – and that it has a variety of tools that apparently make this increasingly feasible.

The documents also detail some of the ways the NSA gathers its data.  One of the most troubling examples is a program under which the NSA intercepts newly ordered routers and other network devices being shipped overseas, unpacks them, installs bugs, repacks them with factory seals, and then sends them on their way, so that forevermore they will operate as windows into whatever the end-user is doing.  One document includes a picture of the NSA employees breaking down and repackaging the boxes. [See p. 149]

Several documents concern X-KEYSCORE, which the NSA itself describes as its most powerful surveillance tool.   By tracking every keystroke on a computer, it permits the NSA to monitor in real time all of a user’s e-mail, social-media and Web-browsing activity. According to this graph, in a single month in 2012, X-KEYSCORE collected more than 41 billion records for a single NSA unit. [See graph p. 159].

This is just the tip of the iceberg.  These and other documents leave many questions unanswered, but they make clear that the NSA’s technical abilities to vacuum up the information we all input into our computers, emails, phones, and web searches is already well beyond our greatest fears.  The NSA itself suggests that its ability to collect exceeds its ability to analyze, but you can be sure that the private security firms with which the NSA contracts for vast sums of our taxpayer dollars are hard at work on that problem as well.

The documents and Greenwald’s book underscore that the NSA is an agency out of control.  In some sense, it has always been out of control – mostly operating abroad, under limited constraints. But in the old days, if law didn’t much constrain it, technical limitations did.   These documents show that the digital age has exponentially increased the NSA’s technical ability to track the details of our most private lives.  What is now needed are laws that ensure that the NSA can do the work it needs to do while respecting the privacy rights of Americans and non-Americans alike.  Greenwald offers no solutions, but effectively raises the alarm.   But if we don’t come up with solutions, the data revolution will render privacy a rusty relic of a bygone era. 

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About the Author(s)

David Cole

National Legal Director of the ACLU and Professor at Georgetown University Law Center Follow him on Twitter (@DavidColeACLU).