A recent investigation into the NSA’s XKeyScore program has revealed the disturbing extent to which targets are sought: in this case, merely searching for or visiting privacy-oriented sites will land you on an NSA target list.
The new report, coming from German public news stations NDR and WDR, uncovered some of the source code of the XKeyScore program. In this case, “program” refers to software rather than the coordinated effort for surveillance. An original English-language piece comes from Das Erste.
The basic strategy at play here is that the NSA wants to find everyone that goes in “deep cover,” you might say, by flagging every single person who uses the less private Internet to learn about privacy and anonymity. I hate to say it, but visiting GeekSided might even be enough.
Some of the specific revelations here are that people searching the Internet for information about Tails, a Linux-based operating system that is optimized for privacy, or Tor, a project dedicated to making anonymous web browsing possible, will be noticed by NSA monitoring tools known collectively as XKeyScore. Other keywords and topics were involved as well.
We have previously written on the benefits and ease of using Tor, a government created and funded initiative, for everyday browsing. I still stand by that recommendation; the more that being involved with it unfairly makes the user a target, the more important it is for conscientious citizens to use it. There is safety in numbers.
For another example of how ridiculous this has become, Linux Journal lamented their inclusion in this NSA target list creation scheme, in which visitors to their site are marked as suspicious. That’s true of tech blog Boing Boing as well. They explain the purpose of these initiatives as such:
One expert suggested that the NSA’s intention here was to separate the sheep from the goats — to split the entire population of the Internet into “people who have the technical know-how to be private” and “people who don’t” and then capture all the communications from the first group.
What happens next after targets are gathered is less clear, beyond the fact that IP addresses are certainly logged. It seems that a scheme of further targeting may proceed, but specifics are lacking. It’s clear that XKeyScore only barely stops short of criminalizing online privacy.
The NDR/WDR piece further explains the great frustration posed by Tor to the NSA, who is perhaps most concerned with somehow foiling the strong privacy protections of Tor. When connected to Tor, users’ browsing data is encrypted and randomly rerouted across multiple servers, making both the content of the data and its origin very difficult to discern for eavesdroppers. A large German stop on this network of servers was a key point of interest, according to the report.
Security expert Bruce Schneier speculates that this may be evidence of a second NSA leaker, in addition to the famous/infamous Edward Snowden. The Boing Boing piece quoted previously believes the same. If so, this one has chosen to stay anonymous (oh, how that would irk the NSA!).
Featured image by g4ll4is (Flickr), cropped from original.