10 Things We’ve Learned About The NSA From A Summer Of Snowden Leaks

Screen-Shot-2013-09-08-at-8.27.57-PM1“The truth is coming, and it cannot be stopped,” Edward Snowden told readers of theGuardian in June. At the time, just a few weeks into the publication of documents that the 30-year-old former National Security Agency contractor had siphoned from his workstation in Hawaii, that prophetic statement might have seemed like grandstanding. But close to three months later, the collection of Snowden’s revelations has grown to the megaleak proportions of WikiLeaks’ Cablegate or Daniel Ellsberg’s Pentagon Papers, with no end in sight. For those who watch the watchers, Snowden may well have become the most important leaker of the 21st century.

Snowden himself has managed to take refuge in Russia and disappear from the headlines, putting the full spotlight back onto his bombshell documents. But as with all megaleaks, the sheer number of scoops he’s enabled threatens to overwhelm anyone tracking the NSA’s still-growing scandal. Here are a few highlights from what we’ve learned so far in the Summer of Snowden.

  • For more than a decade, the NSA has been working to systematically influence encryption standards or insert backdoors in the code of commercial encryption software to enable it to access Internet users’ communications, according to documents Snowden leaked to the Guardian, which were shared with the New York Times and Pro Publica. Though the published documents lack many details, the protocols the agency may have the ability to break or circumvent include Web encryption such as Secure Sockets Layer and Transport Security Layer, the Internet protocol encryption and authentication technology IPsec, common virtual private network systems used for anonymity and secure remote access, and Voice-Over-Internet-Protocol. (VoIP) The backdoor-planting projects, known as “Bullrun” in the United States and “Edgehill” within the NSA’s British equivalent the GCHQ, have made “vast amounts of encrypted Internet data…exploitable,” according to one leaked document.
  • The German newsweekly Der Spiegel wrote over the weekend that it had obtained NSA documents revealing that the agency has the ability to access a wide range of information stored on smartphones including iPhones, Blackberrys, and those running Google’s Android operating system. That information includes contacts, text message traffic, and location data–the paper alludes to the NSA’s compromise of “38 iPhone features.” Despite losing access to Blackberry’s messaging systems in 2009 after a change in how the company compressed data, the agency noted in a document that a breakthrough allowed it to regain access in 2010.
  • Snowden-leaked documents obtained and partially published by theWashington Post revealed the makeup of the so-called Black Budget, the $52.6 billion of government funding spent on classified programs. The budget showed that the NSA received $10.8 billion for the year 2013, second only to the CIA’s $14.7 billion. The budget confirmed that the NSA employs an elite hacking team it calls Tailored Access Operations, revealed the agency’s focus on hacking network routers and switches rather than servers and PCs, and exposed a program to combat “insider threats” by investigating 4,000 employees, which was (ironically) shelved to focus on reacting to WikiLeaks’ disclosures in 2010. The budget also outlined how much telecom firms are paid for their cooperation with the NSA’s surveillance.
  • Newly-revealed surveillance targets for the NSA, according to various Snowden leaks, include the presidents of U.S.-friendly countries such as Brazil and Mexicointernational organizations like the U.N. and E.U.–going so far as to bug embassies and hack the U.N.’s video conferencing systems–and Al Jazeera, the first revelation that the NSA has surveilled journalists. Earlier leaks, published by …

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