For many people, Edward Snowden’s revelations on the NSA spying are “not news”. Some say that people had already warned about it in the past; others say that everyone already knew. So why did Snowden’s revelations cause such an uproar? First, because most people did not know, and second because of the amount of details that the public got regarding the spying practices. So, yes, Snowden’s revelations were groundbreaking for most people indeed, just as the previous whistleblowers leaks were in the past.
As the US and the UK get to know details about their espionage programs, new information also reveals how the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) and GCHQ, its British counterpart gain access to telephone communications and global data and to what extent we can learn how they get that information. In an interview with The Guardian, in which he first revealed first details of the system used by the NSA, Edward Snowden famously said : “You can not even imagine what is possible. It is frightening how far their ability to act goes. We can hack into computer networks and, as soon as someone enters the network, identify from which computer a person is operating”.
There are two ways in which U.S. intelligence obtains data. The first one, PRISM, a program that came to light last June 7. According to documents revealed by Edward Snowden, large media companies ( Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Yahoo!, YouTube, Apple, etc … ), offered U.S. secret services a “back door ” to their servers so that these obtain personal data from their users. Washington, in turn, covered the cost of the operation.
Special Judges in secret trials have given permission to carry out these interceptions. The documents published on PRISM made it clear that the data obtained through the interception of servers was only part of the collection of information. On September 28, The New York Times stated that, since 2010, the NSA was using this information to develop individual profiles and graphics about people who were swept into the system and whose private information was collected from different networks and servers.
The second way to get data was revealed on July 10, when the Washington Post revealed that NSA agents have been able to obtain data not only in the ways revealed by Snowden, but also directly from telephone lines and fiber optics, a system with many code names. In a slide sent to NSA agents, the agency gives the geeks ample space to “using both methods”. “You ask us for explanations of how our intelligence systems work, but then we will ask you how does your intelligence system work”. American experts replied to their European counterparts.
Analysts believed that the NSA was able to process the vast amount of data flowing every second through global networks. But on July 31, The Guardian published another battery of slides on a system called XKeyscore. This mechanism, using metadata easily finds out – who, when and where someone accessed an account to, for example, send a message -. The program then extracted both metadata and the actual content of the email and filter both while keeping records of Internet browser activity. Huge amounts of data could then be filtered by name, phone number, or even the language used in the navigation or in conversation.
British newspaper The Guardian revelations about the NSA also noted that the system used to classify data by their “level of interest” data, could remain on the servers for up to five years, while the “noise” was dismissed in less than 24 hours. Intelligence was indeed able to decipher the plethora of information passing through the encrypted network.
On September 5, Glenn Greenwald signed another report stating that both the NSA and the GCHQ spent 250 million dollars a year in two programs to break ciphers. The revelations, published in The Guardian , The New York Times and ProPublica, said that U.S. intelligence, in addition to using “brute force” – servers that analyze every possible key to find the right one, had also negotiated with computer companies to facilitate access to encryption technology, which allowed the intelligence services to access “back doors” while users considered the encryption safer.
The documentation revealed by Snowden made clear that the scope of this espionage is not limited to the U.S., but has a global scale. France, Belgium, Brazil, Mexico and Venezuela are among the countries that are monitored by the NSA and GCHQ. But the espionage is not limited to governments or average people. It also includes international institutions such as the European Commission and Brazilian companies like Petrobras. All of them are under the spotlight of the U.S. and British espionage machine.
According to Snowden, only four countries are expressly off limits to US intelligence: Canada, UK, Australia and New Zealand, who are the four American partners in crime. These four and the US are known as the Five Eyes. U.S. and UK have not made much effort to deny the existence of these programs. In fact, after being caught, the United States limited itself to say that the type of spying it performs on almost everyone else is the same that other nations are doing.
The US then accused Snowden, and journalists who have published his revelations of committing crimes, for publishing “sensitive information”, which according to the US causes great harm to national security. The US and the UK continue to conduct extensive spying on all nations of the world because they say snooping on everyone is the best way of safeguarding all countries from terrorist attacks.
The U.S. government collects information “the same way it is done by all countries”, said the director of U.S. National Intelligence, James Clapper in response to new details published on the French newspaper Le Monde about NSA spying on France’s telephone communications, including those of French diplomatic missions in Washington and New York. In a statement, Clapper said that the French newspaper claims are “incorrect and misleading ” .Clapper has responded to the revelations of Le Monde, after French Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius, received its American counterpart John Kerry in Paris. Mr. Kerry said he considered the newspaper’s allegations “unacceptable “.
Washington, meanwhile, wants to downplay the issue. “The United States wants to make clear how important our long friendship with France is,” said Clapper. “We will continue working on security and intelligence matters .”If not even America’s close partners and associates can trust the US intelligence community and the US government, why would anyone else do so?
The US managed to plant the seed of distrust among its allies who will no longer look at the North American country with the same eyes. For example, Brazil recently suspended a scheduled high level meeting between President Dilma Rousseff and Obama, and the country is now working around the clock to come up with a secure communications platform that keeps users safe from NSA spying.
The United States has ignored the demands for explanations after spying on European partners. None of the negotiations in Brussels to explain why governments and European citizens and companies were targeted by U.S. authorities has paid off and, in some cases, Washington has blocked attempts to demand accountability. The discussions between EU and U.S. experts are moving slowly and all the authorities of the Obama administration summoned to appear before the European Parliament have refused to go.
Four months after the first revelations, the revelations made by Edward Snowden have been able to make a convincing story about American and British spying, but the EU governments have failed to demand real accountability from the Americans or the British. Such a negative leaves European and Latin American citizens stunned about the American spying program and the incapacity of their leaders to keep them safe from the unwarranted seizure of their private information.
Edward Snowden’s work in advancing the cause of privacy for the people of the world has been and will continue to be as essential as the work done by previous whistleblowers who mainstream media label as “kooks” because they did not have hard proof. The people of the world will never forget that after every stroke on a computer keyboard there are programs such as PRISM, XKeyscore and the Five Eyes of a global spying grid ready to sequester every bit of information it can.
Luis R. Miranda is the Founder and Editor of The Real Agenda. His 16 years of experience in Journalism include television, radio, print and Internet news. Luis obtained his Journalism degree from Universidad Latina de Costa Rica, where he graduated in Mass Media Communication in 1998. He also holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Broadcasting from Montclair State University in New Jersey. Among his most distinguished interviews are: Costa Rican President Jose Maria Figueres and James Hansen from NASA Space Goddard Institute. Read more about Luis.