The NSA monitors, collects, and processes data, just like you hear about. The exact methods are subject to change, and the ethics debated, but to fully understand what this means and why it is happening requires an understanding of American and European history and the growth of technology and the role of government agencies from WWI forward.
Does the NSA Monitor, Collect, and Process Our Data?
TIP: You can take the NSA CryptoChallenge and test your cryptographic prowess (read the directions carefully first, there are some good tips in there).The NSA and surveillance … made simple – animation. This simple and poignant video explains everything you need to know in a few minutes. One concept to ponder is the observer effect, the concept that observing a something changes its behavior.
TIP: How does the NSA track people? It changes from day to day, and with guidance from other branches of government and agencies, but this Washington Post article gives the gist. The whole thing is generally less ominous and more important than it is portrayed by the media. This parody NSA website is informative too, see “Surveillance Techniques: How Your Data Becomes Our Data.”
What is the NSA?
The United States National Security Agency (NSA) is an intelligence agency that originated as a unit to decipher coded communications in World War II when it was officially formed as the NSA by Harry S. Truman in 1952, but it operated less officially as early as 1917 when the US Congress first declared war on Germany. It is equivalent to James Bond’s MI-6, and functions similar to other intelligence agencies like the CIA. The British equivalent of the NSA was called MI-8 in the 1910’s (British Intelligence is always named M-‘ ‘, M-1 was a cryptography unit for instance). Speaking of Bond, Ian Flemming was supposed to have worked at Camp-X, a precursor to the CIA. We can’t be too surprised about the secrecy of these organizations (as, that is sort of their thing).
Since WWII, the NSA has become one of the largest U.S. intelligence organizations in terms of personnel and budget, operating as part of the Department of Defense and simultaneously reporting to the Director of National Intelligence. Many people mistakenly feel this all started under W. Bush, but his administration was only responsible for the Patriot Act, which was used to expand the reach of the NSA, not to create it.History of the NSA. It doesn’t start with the Patriot Act; it starts with industrialization and World War.
What Data Does the NSA Collect?
The IoT (the internet of things) is everything that sends data, the IoE (the internet of everything) is everything that connects to the internet. The NSA generally “scrapes” “everything” collecting all non-encrypted data.
In simple terms, the NSA scrapes data and meta-data from the IoE (the IoT, plus all data from all devices connected to the internet or all beings in earshot of such devices), and grabs data from major companies (the NSA requests this information from private companies via a program called PRISM)., and filters through that data using algorithms to detect threats to National Security.
Despite the Snowden leaks no one knows 100% of the details (especially the details of how things work today), but generally the concept is scrape everything, then follow the law (as per U.S. law including the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act; AKA FISA) in handling the data.
We can say this not only because of what we know (or in this case, what I know as a casual researcher), but because it is basic logic. If one wants to detect threats, one must have access to data. The more data one can access, the better an Agency can detect threats and ensure National Security. Simple as that.
What Does the NSA Do With the Data?
The NSA collects data, but it doesn’t just “look at it” willy-nilly. Joe-the-NSA guy doesn’t thumb through your personal photos (unless their is due cause).
Instead identifiable and non-identifiable information is bulk collected and filtered by software, then the flagged content is investigated. Meta-data is stored, and profiles on some people are apparently kept (as would be the case with say the FBI), but rules apply to how this information can be stored and used (as noted above with for instance FISA).
Or this is the simplified gist at least.
OPINION: As technology gets better we can generally expect less looking and more targeted algorithms that only look for key data. Everyone has a different opinion on the matter, but the conservative viewpoint is “unless you are a terrorist you don’t have anything to worry about” and “the functions of our NSA (and every other developed country’s equivalent) is not only already here, but inventible for the foreseeable future”. Yet, on the other side of this is the argument, “yes but, if a friend, of a friend, of a friend, is a suspect… then everyone with three degrees of separation is fair game” and “well, what if a tyrant gets the keys to the kingdom”… Thus, the conversation is complex.Inside NSA – The National Security Agency – Documentary.
The Morality and Ethics of Intelligence
The morality and ethics of data collection are a topic for another site, but these things are an unavoidable consequence of globalization, modernization, industrialization, and the post-WWII age of the internet.
America and large swaths of the UK nearly lost to the Axis in WWII, and the war was in-part won by cryptographers (along with physicists, strategists, tens of millions of boots on the ground, and other important figures). Today there is no going back to Jefferson’s agrarian society (the only way back is via federalism as states, protected from threats foreign and domestic, have the room to live an agrarian life). That is the reality of things, but there is plenty of room to have a rational conversation surrounding advents in technologies, and executive agencies focused on intelligence and security (foreign and domestic).
Toward the end of J. Edgar Hoover’s time the CIA was overreaching its power and targeting mundane groups, and thus history shows even the best intentions need to exist in check and balance with the other parts of the Republic.
So then the question becomes, in many respects, not “should data be collected”, but “to what degree is ethics ensured and American values upheld”.
Since there are no easy answers, but we invite you to comment openly and honestly below.Lecture 1: Introduction to Cryptography by Christof Paar.
TIP: There is a concept in cryptography called “ultra paranoid computing.” This is essentially the metaphysics of cryptography, the fear that anything can be hacked, and staying ahead of the next hack by creating it and then breaking it. It is an inevitable, but a slippery slope. Misplaced malware today could be a nightmare tomorrow.Cryptography in the Open: History of Crypto and the NSA.
TIP: If Alan Turing is a real life hero and like-wise James Bond a fictional one, then we can’t exactly label the NSA as a villain. American agencies are only as good as the executive, legislative, and judicial branches keeping them in check and balance, and only as strong as a population who understands and supports their intent. How agencies focused on secrecy, who operate in the gray areas of life, convey a positive message is a difficult question, but like money in politics, it is a conversation that needs ongoing discourse. When the Government doesn’t speak clearly, the internet and media have the conversation for them. Eisenhower warned of the Military Industrial Complex, not as an affront to the DoD, but as a concerned father does to a child (Eisenhower is the father, the DoD is the child in this case). The NSA, perhaps more than other agency, should be protected against special interests with clear legislation, and that likely requires some form of clear communication (between branches, between citizens and branches, and between citizens and agencies). NSA.Gov itself and their Social Media presence indicates that this is something that is already in process. Given the huge role that technology will play in our future, no aspect of this should be taken too lightly.
- “How the NSA is tracking people right now” Washingtonpost.com
- “FAQ: What You Need to Know About the NSA’s Surveillance Programs” Propublica.org
- “NSA – Army Predecessor” Wikipedia.org
- “The Early History of NSA” Fliphtml5.com
- “Special: Birth of NSA” W2.EFF.org
- “PRISM (surveillance program)” Wikipedia.org
- “Ultra Paranoid Computing” NSF.org