“We hack everyone everywhere”—What the NSA whistleblower reveals about the agency’s activities abroad

Yes, we’re hacking you too.
Yes, we’re hacking you too.
Image: AP Photo/Richard Drew
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In America there have been howls of outrage at news that the US National Security Agency may have been digitally eavesdropping on Americans—obliging James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, to reassure his compatriots that “only non-U.S. persons outside the U.S. are targeted.” But on the rest of the planet the NSA rakes in millions of gigabytes of personal information with little, if any, opposition or controversy.

Edward Snowden, who was identified today as the leaker of NSA documents to The Guardian and Washington Post, confirmed the broad outlines of the spy agency’s overseas activities. He told the Guardian the NSA’s global invasion of privacy was what drove him to risk the comfortable life he’d built for himself. “I’m willing to sacrifice all of that because I can’t in good conscience allow the US government to destroy privacy, internet freedom and basic liberties for people around the world with this massive surveillance machine they’re secretly building,” he said.

In a related Q&A, Snowden appeared to draw little distinction between his concerns over what the NSA does in the US and overseas, where it is subject to fewer legal constraints. “We hack everyone everywhere,” he said. “We like to make a distinction between us and the others. But we are in almost every country in the world. We are not at war with these countries.”

But the NSA does far more than hack into computers. More broadly, Snowden said, the agency is “intent on making every conversation and every form of behaviour in the world known to them.” The NSA accomplishes this through various means, including using military satellites and listening posts to vacuum up phone calls and by accessing the digital arteries that carry emails and other information. Its targets include not only suspected terrorists but nuclear proliferators, foreign governments, transnational crime syndicates, government and corporate spies and myriad other perceived threats.

Some of the documents Snowden leaked disclose an NSA data-mining tool titled Boundless Informant, which details how much metadata (information such as call duration and phone numbers, but not the content of calls, emails or other messages) the agency collects from computer and telephone networks and other sources in each country in the world. A classified NSA “global heat map” posted by The Guardian says that in one month last March, the agency collected 97 billion “pieces of intelligence” just from computer networks around the world. Iran was the biggest collection target, followed by Pakistan, Jordan, Egypt and then India.

Reams of books have been written about the invasive capabilities of the NSA-led programs, especially those under the name of Echelon and “Five Eyes,’’  a multilateral agreement for cooperation in signals intelligence among the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.  Bloomberg Businessweek recently reported that the agency’s “Tailored Access Operations” uses automated hacking tools to siphon over 2 petabytes (2 million gigabytes) of data every hour out of computer systems outside the US and parse them for intelligence on various threats.

Access to PRISM has allowed Britain’s electronic eavesdropping and security agency, GCHQ, to secretly gather intelligence from the world’s biggest internet companies as well, the Guardian reports. A former NSA official says he can’t comment on whether US allies are accessing PRISM too, but it stands to reason that they are—especially those within the “Five Eyes.”

Former NSA technical intelligence specialist Russell Tice knows first-hand of what the NSA is doing overseas because he worked on literally scores of the “black ops” intel-gathering programs himself within the NSA’s Information Warfare unit. He said the NSA’s capabilities are breathtaking, and able to intercept far more than an unwitting public could imagine.

“This is what the agency was designed to do against potential enemies,” Tice told Quartz. He has spoken out against what he sees as the NSA’s illegal spying on US citizens, and blames his termination back in 2005 on his role as a whistleblower. But he remains proud of the NSA’s abilities, and his work overseas collecting intel. “If it involves electrons we’re there,” he says. “Anything that has electricity running through it.’’