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XKeyscore: NSA tool collects 'nearly everything a user does on the internet'


XKeyscore: NSA tool collects 'nearly everything a user does on the internet'

â?¢ XKeyscore gives 'widest-reaching' collection of online data

â?¢ NSA analysts require no prior authorization for searches

â?¢ Sweeps up emails, social media activity and browsing history

â?¢ NSA's XKeyscore program â?? read one of the presentations

Glenn Greenwald

theguardian.com, Wednesday 31 July 2013 13.56 BST

XKeyscore map

One presentation claims the XKeyscore program covers 'nearly everything a
typical user does on the internet'

A top secret National Security Agency program allows analysts to search with
no prior authorization through vast databases containing emails, online chats
and the browsing histories of millions of individuals, according to documents
provided by whistleblower Edward Snowden.

The NSA boasts in training materials that the program, called XKeyscore, is
its "widest-reaching" system for developing intelligence from the internet.

The latest revelations will add to the intense public and congressional
debate around the extent of NSA surveillance programs. They come as senior
intelligence officials testify to the Senate judiciary committee on
Wednesday, releasing classified documents in response to the Guardian's
earlier stories on bulk collection of phone records and Fisa surveillance
court oversight.

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".

US 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.

XKeyscore, the documents boast, is the NSA's "widest reaching" system
developing intelligence from computer networks â?? what the agency calls
Digital Network Intelligence (DNI). One presentation claims the program
covers "nearly everything a typical user does on the internet", including the
content of emails, websites visited and searches, as well as their metadata.

Analysts can also use XKeyscore and other NSA systems to obtain ongoing
"real-time" interception of an individual's internet activity.

Under US law, the NSA is required to obtain an individualized Fisa warrant
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.

One training slide illustrates the digital activity constantly being
collected by XKeyscore and the analyst's ability to query the databases at
any time.


The purpose of XKeyscore is to allow analysts to search the metadata as well
as the content of emails and other internet activity, such as browser
history, even when there is no known email account (a "selector" in NSA
parlance) associated with the individual being targeted.

Analysts can also search by name, telephone number, IP address, keywords, the
language in which the internet activity was conducted or the type of browser

One document notes that this is because "strong selection [search by email
address] itself gives us only a very limited capability" because "a large
amount of time spent on the web is performing actions that are anonymous."

The NSA documents assert that by 2008, 300 terrorists had been captured using
intelligence from XKeyscore.

Analysts are warned that searching the full database for content will yield
too many results to sift through. Instead they are advised to use the
metadata also stored in the databases to narrow down what to review.

A slide entitled "plug-ins" in a December 2012 document describes the various
fields of information that can be searched. It includes "every email address
seen in a session by both username and domain", "every phone number seen in a
session (eg address book entries or signature block)" and user activity â??
"the webmail and chat activity to include username, buddylist, machine
specific cookies etc".

Email monitoring

In a second Guardian interview in June, Snowden elaborated on his statement
about being able to read any individual's email if he had their email
address. He said the claim was based in part on the email search capabilities
of XKeyscore, which Snowden says he was authorized to use while working as a
Booz Allen contractor for the NSA.

One top-secret document describes how the program "searches within bodies of
emails, webpages and documents", including the "To, From, CC, BCC lines" and
the 'Contact Us' pages on websites".

To search for emails, an analyst using XKS enters the individual's email
address into a simple online search form, along with the "justification" for
the search and the time period for which the emails are sought.



The analyst then selects which of those returned emails they want to read by
opening them in NSA reading software.

The system is similar to the way in which NSA analysts generally can
intercept the communications of anyone they select, including, as one NSA
document put it, "communications that transit the United States and
communications that terminate in the United States".

One document, a top secret 2010 guide describing the training received by NSA
analysts for general surveillance under the Fisa Amendments Act of 2008,
explains that analysts can begin surveillance on anyone by clicking a few
simple pull-down menus designed to provide both legal and targeting
justifications. Once options on the pull-down menus are selected, their
target is marked for electronic surveillance and the analyst is able to
review the content of their communications:


Chats, browsing history and other internet activity

Beyond emails, the XKeyscore system allows analysts to monitor a virtually
unlimited array of other internet activities, including those within social

An NSA tool called DNI Presenter, used to read the content of stored emails,
also enables an analyst using XKeyscore to read the content of Facebook chats
or private messages.


An analyst can monitor such Facebook chats by entering the Facebook user name
and a date range into a simple search screen.


Analysts can search for internet browsing activities using a wide range of
information, including search terms entered by the user or the websites


As one slide indicates, the ability to search HTTP activity by keyword
permits the analyst access to what the NSA calls "nearly everything a typical
user does on the internet".


The XKeyscore program also allows an analyst to learn the IP addresses of
every person who visits any website the analyst specifies.


The quantity of communications accessible through programs such as XKeyscore
is staggeringly large. One NSA report from 2007 estimated that there were
850bn "call events" collected and stored in the NSA databases, and close to
150bn internet records. Each day, the document says, 1-2bn records were

William Binney, a former NSA mathematician, said last year that the agency
had "assembled on the order of 20tn transactions about US citizens with other
US citizens", an estimate, he said, that "only was involving phone calls and
emails". A 2010 Washington Post article reported that "every day, collection
systems at the [NSA] intercept and store 1.7bn emails, phone calls and other
type of communications."

The XKeyscore system is continuously collecting so much internet data that it
can be stored only for short periods of time. Content remains on the system
for only three to five days, while metadata is stored for 30 days. One
document explains: "At some sites, the amount of data we receive per day (20+
terabytes) can only be stored for as little as 24 hours."

To solve this problem, the NSA has created a multi-tiered system that allows
analysts to store "interesting" content in other databases, such as one named
Pinwale which can store material for up to five years. 

It is the databases of XKeyscore, one document shows, that now contain the
greatest amount of communications data collected by the NSA.


In 2012, there were at least 41 billion total records collected and stored in
XKeyscore for a single 30-day period.


Legal v technical restrictions

While the Fisa Amendments Act of 2008 requires an individualized warrant for
the targeting of US persons, NSA analysts are permitted to intercept the
communications of such individuals without a warrant if they are in contact
with one of the NSA's foreign targets.

The ACLU's deputy legal director, Jameel Jaffer, told the Guardian last month
that national security officials expressly said that a primary purpose of the
new law was to enable them to collect large amounts of Americans'
communications without individualized warrants.

"The government doesn't need to 'target' Americans in order to collect huge
volumes of their communications," said Jaffer. "The government inevitably
sweeps up the communications of many Americans" when targeting foreign
nationals for surveillance.

An example is provided by one XKeyscore document showing an NSA target in
Tehran communicating with people in Frankfurt, Amsterdam and New York.


In recent years, the NSA has attempted to segregate exclusively domestic US
communications in separate databases. But even NSA documents acknowledge that
such efforts are imperfect, as even purely domestic communications can travel
on foreign systems, and NSA tools are sometimes unable to identify the
national origins of communications.

Moreover, all communications between Americans and someone on foreign soil
are included in the same databases as foreign-to-foreign communications,
making them readily searchable without warrants.

Some searches conducted by NSA analysts are periodically reviewed by their
supervisors within the NSA. "It's very rare to be questioned on our
searches," Snowden told the Guardian in June, "and even when we are, it's
usually along the lines of: 'let's bulk up the justification'."

In a letter this week to senator Ron Wyden, director of national intelligence
James Clapper acknowledged that NSA analysts have exceeded even legal limits
as interpreted by the NSA in domestic surveillance.

Acknowledging what he called "a number of compliance problems", Clapper
attributed them to "human error" or "highly sophisticated technology issues"
rather than "bad faith".

However, Wyden said on the Senate floor on Tuesday: "These violations are
more serious than those stated by the intelligence community, and are

In a statement to the Guardian, the NSA said: "NSA's activities are focused
and specifically deployed against â?? and only against â?? legitimate foreign
intelligence targets in response to requirements that our leaders need for
information necessary to protect our nation and its interests.

"XKeyscore is used as a part of NSA's lawful foreign signals intelligence
collection system.

"Allegations of widespread, unchecked analyst access to NSA collection data
are simply not true. Access to XKeyscore, as well as all of NSA's analytic
tools, is limited to only those personnel who require access for their
assigned tasks â?¦ In addition, there are multiple technical, manual and
supervisory checks and balances within the system to prevent deliberate
misuse from occurring."

"Every search by an NSA analyst is fully auditable, to ensure that they are
proper and within the law.

"These types of programs allow us to collect the information that enables us
to perform our missions successfully â?? to defend the nation and to protect US
and allied troops abroad."