Government information gathering tactics is a subject that most of us don’t talk about much. I can only think of two main reasons why we don’t, the first, we don’t actually know their tactics and/or the thought of what they might know or will find out if we talk scares us into not talking.
There are only a few brave ones that go against their government, mostly it isn’t for personal gain, and share their knowledge of what’s happening behind locked doors. These people are known as whistleblowers.
As I was procrastinating one evening I was scrolling through recent movie releases and came across a documentary trailer for a movie titled Citizenfour. It was a short mysterious trailer that left me wanting to watch more. Intrigued I found the full version of the documentary and sat back and watched what was a eye opener.
Up until a week or two ago I was someone who didn’t talk or put much thought towards government intelligence. I knew from what I had heard that spying was widespread but that was about it. A whistleblower by the name of Edward Snowden changed this and woke me up to the true extent of spying.
The documentary starts by following reporters, Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald, that have been contacted by someone that says he has information about the government. He says the world needs to know. He only calls himself citizenfour.
Edward was a contracted senior technology adviser for the NSA and a former employee of the CIA. After working for the NSA for a number of years he had seen enough and want the public to know the true extent of government spying. He flew from his job in Hawaii to Hong Kong in May of 2013 to tell his story to the world. This brave man left his girlfriend, family and friends without telling them where he was going, with the possibility of never seeing them again.
This is where the documentary team, meets the man that has secretly arranged a meeting with them. A series of meetings followed and Edward released the documents to the reporters, then they start to tell the world. After the news broke the events that followed happened in rapid succession. The media went into a frenzy and the NSA tried to cover it up and find out who did it. Edward later publicly it was him and went into hiding. He is currently in Moscow under where Russia is giving him asylum from the US government.
One thing that got to me throughout the meetings in the that were documented was how paranoid Edward was about the NSA watching him. For a start I thought he looked stupid, but after hearing the extent of spying that was happening I can now understand why. A few facts that he said that hit me hard were:
- In 2011 one NSA facility could monitor simultaneously 1 billion communications at any given point. There were 20 NSA facilities in 2011.
- On his work computer he could watch live feeds of over 1000 drones circling over people’s/targets houses all over the world.
- The NSA database’s search engine, XKEYSCORE, could map your daily life by just using your credit card and a linked transportation pass.
As a New Zealand citizen we usually take the back foot around this this sort of topic because we don’t think it affects us. Think again. The GCSB (the New Zealand spying agency) has joined with, shown in this document, the NSA and is using the same technology to monitor us as well. Not only that the NSA has a backdoor in and can use data that the GCSB has collected in the investigations. One of the documents that Edward Snowden released, that the NSA keeps, is a definition of what a New Zealand Citizen is and when the NSA is allowed access to through the backdoor into the GCSB database.
One thing that he mentioned a few times was the database search engine that the analysts used to search through the data; XKEYSCORE. After finishing the documentary I went to a website setup with access to the documents he has released.
I found a series of “presentations” I guess you could call them, detailing what it was and even instructions on how to use it.
- What XKEYSCORE is XKeyScore
- Two of many instructional presentations on how to use it
- XKEYSCORE Workflows (includes links about NZ’s system)
- DNI 101 How Do I Begin Analyzing a Target’s Email Address
Notice that along the bottom of the first two documents NZL is included. That means that the document is relevant to the same system that the GCSB use. Another thing I found was a system, NSA has developed, that was 10 times bigger than XKEYSCORE. Its name was TEMPORA. This system at one site could process 40 billion pieces of content a day. The documentation for that was released in 2012, so I am guessing that those figures would have doubled or even tripled by now.
From this I don’t intend on scaring anyone to start living like Patrick, under a rock, but to spread knowledge with your pairs. Read about what is happening behind our backs. If you want to learn more I would start with the documentary and then Edward Snowden website.