New Snowden leak: NSA program collects all online activity

The latest revelation shows vast extent of government's online user data hoarding

Published July 31, 2013 2:00PM (EDT)

In the latest revelation to come from documents leaked by Edward Snowden to the Guardian, the whistle-blower has exposed a National Security Agency program, which collects nearly every aspect of user activity online. News of the NSA's XKeyscore program, revealed Wednesday, is just the most recent in a spate of leaks provided by the former contract analyst (currently hiding from extradition to the U.S. in a Russian airport terminal). According to Glenn Greenwald, who has been communicating with Snowden to report on the NSA's vast spy dragnets, the XKeyscore program "allows analysts to search with no prior authorization through vast databases containing emails, online chats and the browsing histories of millions of individuals."

A government document, leaked by Snowden, boasts that the program -- one among a series used to hoard and sift information without a warrant on phone and Internet user data -- is its "widest-reaching" system for developing intelligence from the Internet. Unlike the NSA programs first revealed in Snowden's leaks, XKeyscore not only allows analysts to browse user metadata, but also provides access to the content of emails and other Internet activity, such as browser history, "even when there is no known email account," Greenwald noted.

The sheer quantity of data collected through XKeyscore, the Guardian reports, requires that in order to sift and keep data considered relevant to the NSA, "a multi-tiered system [is in place] that allows analysts to store 'interesting' content in other databases" -- content found through sifting metadata selectors and selected through dictionary tasked term searches, for example.

Via the Guardian:

The files shed light on one of Snowden's most controversial statements, made in his first video interview published by the Guardian on June 10.

"I, sitting at my desk," said Snowden, could "wiretap anyone, from you or your accountant, to a federal judge or even the president, if I had a personal email".

U.S. officials vehemently denied this specific claim. Mike Rogers, the Republican chairman of the House intelligence committee, said of Snowden's assertion: "He's lying. It's impossible for him to do what he was saying he could do."

But training materials for XKeyscore detail how analysts can use it and other systems to mine enormous agency databases by filling in a simple on-screen form giving only a broad justification for the search. The request is not reviewed by a court or any NSA personnel before it is processed.

... Under US law, the NSA is required to obtain an individualized Fisawarrant only if the target of their surveillance is a 'US person', though no such warrant is required for intercepting the communications of Americans with foreign targets. But XKeyscore provides the technological capability, if not the legal authority, to target even US persons for extensive electronic surveillance without a warrant provided that some identifying information, such as their email or IP address, is known to the analyst.

By Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email

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Edward Snowden Glenn Greenwald Internet National Security Agency Nsa The Guardian Whistleblower Xkeyscore