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No, Really, the Government Can Read Your Email

More than just metadata, the NSA's systems can track 'nearly everything a user does on the internet'

The documents leak from former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden has not stopped dripping, and in a new story today, the Guardian lays out a NSA program called X-Keyscore. The system lets the security agency collect, search and read “nearly everything a user does on the internet.” All jokes about President Obama checking your email aside, the report, says New York University journalism theorist Jay Rosen, is “in some ways the most disturbing yet” of the Snowden leaks. The Guardian:

The files shed light on one of Snowden’s most controversial statements, made in his first video interview published by the Guardian on June 10.

“I, sitting at my desk,” said Snowden, could “wiretap anyone, from you or your accountant, to a federal judge or even the president, if I had a personal email”….

raining materials for XKeyscore detail how analysts can use it and other systems to mine enormous agency databases by filling in a simple on-screen form giving only a broad justification for the search. The request is not reviewed by a court or any NSA personnel before it is processed.

Previously the news broke that the National Security Agency, a branch of the Department of Defense, was able to collect the metadata of phone calls and emails and other internet activity—saying who was talking to whom, where they were, when they conversed and how often they did so. X-Keyscore goes further, says the Guardian: this system doesn’t just deal with metadata, but with the contents of those communications.

To search for emails, an analyst using XKS enters the individual’s email address into a simple online search form, along with the “justification” for the search and the time period for which the emails are sought.

The analyst then selects which of those returned emails they want to read by opening them in NSA reading software.

… Analysts can also use XKeyscore and other NSA systems to obtain ongoing “real-time” interception of an individual’s internet activity.

Going through the documents provided by Snowden, the Guardian outlines the extent of the NSA’s tools:

Beyond emails, the XKeyscore system allows analysts to monitor a virtually unlimited array of other internet activities, including those within social media.

An NSA tool called DNI Presenter, 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, the NSA says that the “NSA’s activities are focused and specifically deployed against – and only against – legitimate foreign intelligence targets in response to requirements that our leaders need for information necessary to protect our nation and its interests.” Though X-Keyscore and the other NSA tools can, and have, been used to monitor Americans, they are legally only supposed to spy on foreign targets.

More from Smithsonian.com:

Today’s the Day the NSA’s Permission to Collect Verizon Metadata Runs Out
400 Words to Get Up to Speed on Edward Snowden, the NSA And Government Surveillance

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About Colin Schultz
Colin Schultz

Colin Schultz is a freelance science writer and editor based in Toronto, Canada. He blogs for Smart News and contributes to the American Geophysical Union. He has a B.Sc. in physical science and philosophy, and a M.A. in journalism.

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