Imagine you're a world leader walking into a meeting with the president of the United States. But he already knows everything you're going to say because his spies hacked into your communications and read your notes before you got there.
That's not a plot for the latest James Bond flick. It's straight from the latest published report drawn from documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
Snowden's revelations have led to snowballing accusations that the National Security Agency is accessing and reading communications from world leaders. Wednesday's revelations come on the heels of revelations that the NSA spied on French political leaders, and countries that have been caught up in the agency's snooping on dignitaries include Mexico, Germany and Colombia.
In a story published Wednesday, The Intercept went into great detail on how far one of the NSA's spying programs, called X-Keyscore, can reach into the web and find any kind of communication, be it chats, emails or documents.
Purportedly culled from Powerpoint-style presentations used to train NSA analysts, the documents appeared to show that:
- President Barack Obama got a list of talking points that United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon hoped to hit on during a one-on-one meeting, courtesy of the NSA's X-Keyscore program.
- A senior al-Qaeda leader Googled himself, finding information under a variety of his aliases, all while the NSA tracked his activity on X-Keyscore.
- The NSA tells its trainees that it caught 300 terrorists using X-Keyscore as of 2008.
- The spy agency can detect people in specific groups -- like Germans living in Pakistan -- with X-Keyscore's ability to track the web searches and locations of Internet users.
- The government tracks individual Internet users through a standard identity tracking tool, called cookies, used by private companies on their websites. Typically these are protected on a computer, but X-Keyscore apparently can get around that.
The Guardian was the first to discuss this program in 2013, but these new details indicate just how successful it was at grabbing sensitive information about communications and Internet users.
Why was it so successful? It grabbed information from cables that connect computers on the Internet, theoretically able to see all traffic that moves around the Internet at any time. The NSA stored all this data on servers that its analysts then trawled through.
The documents also seem to show that spycraft these days has been reduced to effectively searching through information databases. In fact, the training information spends a lot of time focusing on how to more easily pick that needle out of the haystack.
Updated at 4:51 p.m. PT: The National Security Agency provided the following statement in response to The Intercept's report on the purportedly leaked documents:
"The National Security Agency's foreign intelligence operations are 1) authorized by law; 2) subject to multiple layers of stringent internal and external oversight; and 3) conducted in a manner that is designed to protect privacy and civil liberties. As provided for by Presidential Policy Directive 28 (PPD-28), all persons, regardless of their nationality, have legitimate privacy interests in the handling of their personal information. NSA goes to great lengths to narrowly tailor and focus its signals intelligence operations on the collection of communications that are most likely to contain foreign intelligence or counterintelligence information."
Correction, 6:45 p.m. PT: The original version of this story characterized these documents as newly leaked by Snowden. The Intercept describes its report simply as "one of the largest releases yet of documents provided by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden." Andhe released all his classified NSA documents to journalists in 2013.