When Edward Snowden first leaked information about the NSA's vast surveillance powers, many joked about about the government reading all of our instant messages and keeping tabs on our Internet browsing. For the past few months, government officials have tried to convince us that they can't do that, but a new Wall Street Journal report suggests they could – if we were saying anything interesting. One U.S. official says the NSA is "not wallowing willy-nilly" through Americans' online chatter because "we want high-grade ore." In order to obtain it, the NSA has worked with telecommunications providers to install technology that can filter streams of data domestically and internationally. "The system has the capacity to reach roughly 75% of all U.S. Internet traffic in the hunt for foreign intelligence, including a wide array of communications by foreigners and Americans," the Journal reports.
The system uncovered by the paper through interviews with former and current U.S. officials is far broader than the programs detailed by Snowden's leaks. While Prism allows the NSA to demand stored information from Internet companies, various programs with names like Blarney, Fairview, Oakstar, Lithium, and Stormbrew let the agency sift through information passing through the domestic backbone of the Internet.
At more than a dozen locations throughout the U.S., the NSA has installed "equipment that copies, scans and filters large amounts of the traffic that passes through" the Internet's infrastructure. Using complex algorithms, the NSA asks telecommunication companies to filter out data likely to contain foreign intelligence information. The NSA briefly copies that traffic, and can view the content of the communications as it decides what to keep, based on "strong selectors" like e-mail addresses or IP addresses from a terrorist organization.
The programs were in place before 2001, but the NSA started capturing more information after 9/11. Originally, the agency focused on traffic that passes through international undersea cables. Legally, the NSA can only look at information to or from foreigners, but since it's monitoring cables within the U.S., it's more likely that purely domestic communications are being scooped up inadvertently. (And as the Washington Post reported last week, the NSA frequently violates U.S. privacy laws.) The Journal provided this troubling example of the NSA's domestic surveillance power:
For the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, officials say, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and NSA arranged with Qwest Communications International Inc. to use intercept equipment for a period of less than six months around the time of the event. It monitored the content of all email and text communications in the Salt Lake City area.
Despite the NSA's incredible reach, there's still some information eluding intelligence officials. Sources tell NBC News that the NSA still doesn't know what documents Snowden took, and government officials are "overwhelmed" by their efforts to figure out which government secrets might be published next.