Latest NSA spying news features emoticons and Google engineers exploding with profanity

Pub date October 30, 2013
WriterRebecca Bowe
SectionPolitics Blog

More revelations on spying by the National Security Agency were published in the Washington Post today. Thanks again to whistleblower Edward Snowden (whose actions gave this cartoonist pause with a “Post-Snowden moment”) we now know that the NSA is capturing massive amounts of communications data flowing between data centers maintained by Google and Yahoo.

According to the Post, digital information produced by Google and Yahoo account holders – texts, emails, documents, videos and yes, that does include content – is being copied by the NSA and sent to its Fort Meade headquarters, where some but not all is retained by the agency.

It’s known that the NSA is intercepting Google and Yahoo user account information as moves between data centers, but the exact collection points remain a mystery. While some of that information evidently belongs to Americans, there doesn’t seem to be detailed information about how much of it originates in the U.S. versus foreign nations. The main tool for capturing this data is a project called MUSCULAR, operated in collaboration with British intelligence agency GCHQ. 

A smiley face inserted into a hand-drawn sketch from a top-secret file was enough to cause a couple Google engineers to “explode in profanity,” the Post reporters noted. That drawing demonstrated how encryption, a security measure meant to shield data from third parties, is “added and removed here,” at an intersection between the public Internet and Google’s internal cloud servers.

Seeing as how Google is a ubiquitous presence in our lives and a key player in Silicon Valley’s tech industry, it’ll be interesting to see how native San Franciscan Sen. Dianne Feinstein responds to the news that the NSA has apparently been intercepting the tech giant’s data without its knowledge. Feinstein is uniquely positioned to weigh in on this activity in her capacity as chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Since Snowden’s first leak, Feinstein has kept up the drumbeat that NSA’s spying program is good for national security.

On Oct. 2, at a Judiciary Committee hearing on oversight of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, she delivered the following statement:

“Our great strength today, ladies and gentlemen, in protecting this homeland, is to be able to have the kind of technology that’s able to piece together data while protecting rights. I listened to this program being described as a surveillance program. It is not. There is no content collected by the NSA. There are bits of data—location, telephone numbers—that can be queried when there is reasonable, articulable suspicion. … I will do everything I can to prevent this program from being cancelled out. To destroy it is to make this nation more vulnerable. I just wanted to say that. I had to say it.” 

Speaking earlier this year, at a Sept. 26 Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on FISA, Feinstein delivered a reminder of what happened on Sept. 11, 2001 and sought to offer reassurance on the data collection program, saying:

“This committee as well as the Judiciary Committee have reviewed the legality of these programs, been briefed on their operation, and been notified of problems with their implementation. Further, this committee has previously informed all senators of additional classified information regarding these programs available for their review prior to Senate consideration of these measures. 

It is my opinion that the surveillance activities conducted under FISA, and other programs operated by the National Security Agency, are lawful, they are effective, and they are conducted under careful oversight.”

But more recently, following revelations of spying on foreign leaders, Feinstein changed her tune. In an Oct. 28 statement, she said the Senate Intelligence Community was “not satisfactorily informed.”

Suddenly, rather than being notified and informed, the committee members were seemingly kept in the dark while the NSA ran wild. “It is abundantly clear that a total review of all intelligence programs is necessary so that members of the Senate Intelligence Committee are fully informed as to what is actually being carried out by the intelligence community,” she said.

Seems the members of the Senate Intelligence Committee could start by reading Washington Post articles detailing the contents of Snowden’s leaks. There’s plenty of information in there.