It’s Official. NSA can and does collect all information pertaining to a user’s online behavior. A recent audit has revealed that the NSA has broken privacy rules countless times over the course of the past several years. US Senators have also blasted the National Security Agency & The Government for unnecessary secrecy of the program and the irrational way by which NSA has protected and hidden the key facts of the PRISM program from the lawmakers.
Recent documents and one specific presentation used as a training material revealed the existence of a top NSA program known as the X-KEYSCORE that is responsible for digging up data on ‘nearly everything a typical user does on the internet’. The most alarming part of the tool is that it does not require any sort of authorization or court warrant to initiate any search requests to snoop on private user data.
NSA had been pretty explicit in their training materials about the far reaching effects of the X-KEYSCORE tool, and how it can be utilized to gain access to a user’s online browsing trails. To put it in Edward Snowden’s words, this is what he had to say at the beginning of the controversy:
“I, sitting at my desk, could wiretap anyone, from you or your accountant, to a federal judge or even the president, if I had a personal email.”
Those words were received with horror by people around the world, and while US officials, especially NSA top agents, had viciously opposed the fact they possessed such surveillance powers, the existence of X-KEYSCORE and its subsequent public revelation has cemented the fact that the Government indeed has the power to snoop on anyone indiscriminately.
X-KEYSCORE is amazingly simple in its utility, as all an agent has to do is enter user information into the program and state a loosely related justification for the search. They are offered plenty of options to modify and customize their search, and can choose options from drop-down menus. In essence, X-KEYSCORE works similar to a website form, where the agent or investigating officer can enter the relevant user information, and can access the details of the user at the click of a button.
There isn’t a single review process or court hearing to validate or check the probable cause that led to the initiation of the search and surveillance request. This led to multiple instances of misuse, and NSA has gone on record saying that their system might have been exploited by their agents, and the program may have proven to be a bit more secretive and complicated than they intended it to be.
X-KEYSCORE is an immensely powerful tool, and can retrieve instantaneous data on a user’s browsing pattern and web history. X-KEYSCORE is able to intercept email conversations, chats, phone conversations, webcam chats, social media updates, social media chats or messages and even the metadata from the linked archives of major service providers. However, due to the extensive amount of information being collected on a daily basis, it is estimated that around 2 billion conversations happen every day, which can only be stored for a period up to 5 days. To get around this problem, NSA has devised layered storage systems that can store and retrieve large amounts of data for up to 5 years.
To make matters worse, X-KEYSCORE program is also used to intercept real-time conversations as and when they happen. This means that the NSA agents and top US officials can keep tabs on a particular person of interest, or a group of people, and intrude into their privacy by logging all of their online behavior. Going under the pseudonym of DNI (Digital Network Intelligence), NSA does not seek warrants or court orders to perform such kinds of surveillance on individuals, either on home soil or abroad.
Technically, NSA is required to produce a court warrant before initiating surveillance on a person residing in the U.S. Under the FISA act, NSA should request for a warrant only if the surveillance is being carried out on a U.S citizen residing within the United States. For all other individuals and U.S citizens residing abroad, the FISA act does not mention anything about obtaining a warrant, which has prompted NSA to override existing laws to initiate surveillance on any person, either a U.S citizen or an alien residing within or outside the U.S.
X-KEYSCORE is under constant surveillance by a group of dedicated analysts, who analyze data and feed security related information to top NSA officials, who then entrust agents to continue surveillance through the X-KEYSCORE program. Agents and analysts can use the program to initiate search by email, name, phone number, social security number and a lot of other identifying parameters, including metadata that includes information about senders and recipients. This helps them in sorting data related to a group of people and helps identify security threats by utilizing keyword alerts.
Under these circumstances, it is only possible that different security agencies around the world utilize different surveillance tactics to keep tabs on different people around the world. It is important to note that the actions of Edward Snowden, who risked the wrath of the United States Government to let people know that they are being tracked illegally, have helped us understand the value of our privacy. There might be surveillance programs that are still running without our knowledge, but gathering personal data without consent is constitutionally immoral. To be safe from such surveillance and to be truly anonymous online, users can make use of encrypting technologies such as Virtual Private Networks (VPN) to completely encrypt data and avoid prying eyes from recording any personal and private information.