NSA Storing Internet Data, Social Networking Data, on Pretty Much Everybody

Two new stories based on the Snowden documents.

This is getting silly. General Alexander just lied about this to Congress last week. The old NSA tactic of hiding behind a shell game of different code names is failing. It used to be they could get away with saying “Project X doesn’t do that,” knowing full well that Projects Y and Z did and that no one would call them on it. Now they’re just looking shiftier and shiftier.

The program the New York Times exposed is basically Total Information Awareness, which Congress defunded in 2003 because it was just too damned creepy. Now it’s back. (Actually, it never really went away. It just changed code names.)

I’m also curious how all those PRISM-era denials from Internet companies about the NSA not having “direct access” to their servers jibes with this paragraph:

The overall volume of metadata collected by the N.S.A. is reflected in the agency’s secret 2013 budget request to Congress. The budget document, disclosed by Mr. Snowden, shows that the agency is pouring money and manpower into creating a metadata repository capable of taking in 20 billion “record events” daily and making them available to N.S.A. analysts within 60 minutes.

Honestly, I think the details matter less and less. We have to assume that the NSA has everyone who uses electronic communications under constant surveillance. New details about hows and whys will continue to emerge—for example, now we know the NSA’s repository contains travel data—but the big picture will remain the same.

Related: I’ve said that it seems that the NSA now has a PR firm advising it on response. It’s trying to teach General Alexander how to better respond to questioning.

Also related: A cute flowchart on how to avoid NSA surveillance.

Posted on October 1, 2013 at 1:08 PM67 Comments


ChristianO October 1, 2013 1:43 PM

If I was an evil overlord and wanted to take over the USA without anybody noticing… I couldn’t do it better than Keith.

Craig October 1, 2013 2:13 PM

I actually can more or less believe that Keith Alexander and his cadre of spooks really believe what they’re doing is good for America. The problem is that this only goes to show how fundamentally ignorant, arrogant, and stupid they really are. They’re basically turning themselves into an American version of the KGB; they’re America’s secret police. How can that be good for America — assuming you still believe in traditional American values such as liberty and personal privacy?

Sile October 1, 2013 2:31 PM

New way to avoid NSA? Try McFee’s new re-inverterd device of VPN technology, backdoored and supported by NSA. You avoid, by this way as it said the NSA and also she track you, all happy with their goals.

kashmarek October 1, 2013 2:48 PM

“Now they’re just looking shiftier and shiftier.”

You should have left out the ‘f’.

moo October 1, 2013 2:51 PM


Yes, the NSA and friends are actually doing tremendous harm to America, both through the destruction of civil liberties that were one of the keys of the nation’s success for the past 50 years, and also by destroying the trust that foreigners place in American internet businesses and infrastructure. The long-term costs of this are incalculable, and far exceed any possible damage that terrorists could ever have done to the U.S. (other than by stinging it in a way, that encouraged it to self-inflict far more grievous harms than the terrorists themselves could ever have managed).

Its important to remember, that nobody ever thinks of themselves as the villain. I’m sure all those NSA spooks think they’re doing the right thing, a necessary thing, that the ends justify the means, that desperate times require desperate measures. For more than a decade, they have been high on paranoia and fear and they think external terrorists and other piss-ant threats really are worth all of this extraordinary effort and expense to spy on and contain. And so, whether blindly or with eyes wide open.. they have participated in and expanded a raft of surveillance programs that are going to turn out to be the most powerful tools ever built by humans for oppressing other humans. If any of them read history, they might have an inkling of what happens when some group of humans gain enormous power over everyone else. Its not going to end well.

If slogans like “Free Country” and “Land of the Free, Home of the Brave” actually meant anything, they would mean rejecting tyrranical actions and accepting that there are some risks to living in a free society. They would mean that the ends DON’T justify the means, that NOTHING should let you lower yourself to the point where you terrorize and oppress your own people. Or even just invade their privacy, degrade them, cause them to self-censor, secretly feed info from your mass-cyberstalking of them to other law enforcement agencies and encourage them to lie about it in court (parallel construction), etc. I think in a civilized country, people who betrayed their nations values so completely and endangered its future security so thoroughly would be tried and hanged. Instead you have extraordinary rendition, torture, drone strikes, Haliburton, and a surveillance state apparatus unprecedented in its level of invasiveness and pervasiveness, and is totally out of control.

Actually, the current situation is unprecedented, and I am curious just how bad the results are going to be, but it will probably take a few decades for all of the damage to unfold. The one thing I’m pretty sure of, is that we are all going to pay a high price for the folly of that secret few.

princeton October 1, 2013 2:53 PM

Overload… how does anyone know even know what to believe anymore? This AM I read the NSA facilitated the kill and capture of innocents. It’s worse because of the media. They can’t even get an account of a local event right. How in the World can anyone know what to believe? That’s what he told Martin Bryce before he got out of the car – “You won’t know who to trust.”

Ordinarily, things are neither as bad, nor as worse, as they seem to be. But now…

princeton October 1, 2013 2:56 PM


McAfee??? Please…that is worse yet. Why not dig up Saddam Hussein and reinstall his corpse as dictator and be done with it.

TimH October 1, 2013 3:04 PM


“Land of the Free, Home of the Brave”??

I thought most of the Braves were killed by the incoming settlers in the 17th and 18th centuries…

kashmarek October 1, 2013 3:07 PM


You expect people to click on a Facebook link to generate (or find) “fake” information? Most of Facebook is fake. Those that leave because of the tracking, are probably the ones that the NSA wants to get data about (no more) and those that continue to use Facebook have nothing worth tracking. I wonder if there is a way to clog up the NSA data arteries? Maybe a botnet of a million PCs with fake users to generate tons and tons of activity that is meaningless…oh, wait, that’s already being done to generate ad revenue with fake hits.

I wonder how long it will take before the NSA tells the ISPs (or Facebook/Twitter/Microsoft/Google/Amazon et al) that they have to keep the data so the NSA center isn’t overrun. Hmmm.

Petter October 1, 2013 3:16 PM

Most of the stuff that comes out of the mouths of the government and surveillance related organizations should be read as “non-denail denails”.
There’s absolutely nothing they say that is not based on deception.

They have three options.
Keep shut about everything and keep on doing it in secrecy.
Lie about it everything and keep on doing it in secrecy.
Say they will stop doing everything but keep on doing it in secrecy.

They will not stop something that they, the state and corporations will benefit from unless someone with cojones kill the programs.

That is as much fiction as the US will lower their national debt within the next 20 years.

Tom Grant October 1, 2013 3:30 PM

PRISM-era denials, PROMIS-era denials…

Someone is in denial, that’s for sure.

Thanks, Bruce.

unimportant October 1, 2013 3:37 PM

The NSA has reserved more than 125 TB storage for every living human being. It is about time to fill this storage with data… 😉

Rusty October 1, 2013 4:01 PM

I think one of the things that needs to be remembered is that decreasing privacy does not increase security. Helen Keller noted that “Security is mostly superstition. It does not exist in nature. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. The fearful are caught as often as the bold.”

Unless there are people seriously working to get their representatives and senators actively doing something to eliminate these activities by the NSA, I don’t think we’ll see any positive changes.

Brian M. October 1, 2013 4:03 PM

125TB for everybody? I wonder how much data gets sucked up that is just plain garbage. “We need twenty yottabytes!” But what the NSA doesn’t say is that they’ve been stuffing their servers with YouTube’s cat videos, over and over again…

unimportant October 1, 2013 4:59 PM

@Brian M.:
125 TB storage per person is so much that we can savely waste 1 TB for cat videos and another 1 TB for plain garbage.

...with_blackjack!_And hookers! October 1, 2013 7:31 PM


Its important to remember, that nobody ever thinks of themselves as the villain.

That’s not true moo. I am evil villain 🙂

Tell me you’re not secretly rooting for Moriarty in the next season of Sherlock!

Bauke Jan Douma October 1, 2013 7:57 PM

@ Brandioch Conner

Because it’s the same class of society, doing something to another class
of society that they are fearful of.

Personally, I am waiting for the Snowdon revelations that shed light
on NSA awarenes w.r.t. ‘their own class’: personnel, related agencies,
politicians, you name it, and how that ‘awareness’ (what a lovely
euphemistic term!), how that awareness has been put to ‘good use’…

Am I the only one who’s itching bad for the unencrypted contents of those
Snowden ‘insurance files’ sizing 6GB, 43GB and 342GB (numbers from
memory) that were put on the torrents recently?


Asker October 1, 2013 8:26 PM

A question…if NSA personnel can access any computer remotely, then…
1) should this be interpreted to mean that they can even access e.g. Obamas laptop?
2) would their powers not give them higher access level than Top Secret?
3) if they cannot access certain computers then what might block them?

I am curious about aspects that would stop NSA personnel from accessing data that they (based on their security access level) should not have access to. Of course it can be tough to determine how some restrictions like that would work unless one has been involved in implementing them.

Invisible Man October 1, 2013 9:56 PM

Putting some thoughts together from what was asked by @Asker and what was in that article linked by @Rich…

Namely that whether it is possible for NSA operatives to have access to e.g. the SCADA power systems?

Maybe this has something to do with those “rolling blackouts” in California earlier this millennium. One would hope that NSA has done some risk analysis and implemented some checks and balances if this power is abused by some rogue analyst.

riley October 1, 2013 10:26 PM

I’m also curious how all those PRISM-era denials from Internet companies about the NSA not having “direct access” to their servers jibes with this paragraph […]

Why would the NSA need direct access? Indirect access, e.g. via a VPN, would be fine. Or maybe the companies push data onto servers that aren’t “theirs”, e.g. that are owned by the NSA.

Google announced recently that they’d start encrypting their data center traffic. In other words, they’ve likely been negligent with their security for years, and the NSA could have grabbed it without Google’s help. (Apparently not enough of it, given the secret court orders.)

Chris Travers October 1, 2013 10:33 PM

I keep wondering if the NSA has a project codenamed “Nobody” that listens to phone calls and reads emails. Such would be great, allowing elected officials to state truthfully that “Nobody is listening to your phone calls.”

Peter October 1, 2013 11:31 PM

There’s nothing illegal in collecting those metadata, especially not in those of foreigners, so it could be expected that NSA would collect them. Remember that all those metadata are also kept by the commercial companies like Google, Facebook, and the internet providers. They are making their money out of them, NSA tries to keep the US safe with them. If we don’t like that, then there should be a law which makes the use of metadata illegal. But that would be the shutdown of the internet.

Eugeniu Patrascu October 1, 2013 11:51 PM

It’s very disconcerting to see that the US congress gets lied by NSA (and other agencies representatives) and they just say “We are upset, but we’re not goning to do anything about it”.

And also Congress is hiding behind the ‘we cannot talk about classified information. This is bollocks. Congress represents the people and they should be able to declassify whatever they want based solely on their personal judgement. It’s like the Congress is held hostage by the executive branch at gunpoint with all the “it’s classified information” stuff.

I truly believe that if the US Congress wanted to resolve this, they could have done it by now and no one could have stopped them by any means. Not even SCOTUS.

Gavin B. October 2, 2013 12:53 AM

Now I’m Targeted wrote:
War is peace
Freedom is slavery
Ignorance is strength
NSA is security

Your enemy is your friend

/from a european

Alain from Switzerland October 2, 2013 12:53 AM

Here’s a possible loophole for collecting not just metadata:

The Guardian article by Glenn Greenwald of early May 2013 suggests that the FBI might get access to past phone conversations via other US Government organisations.

How can that be if only metadata is collected?

Maybe if it was cell phone conversations, they could have been stored on the grounds that cell phone conversations are in principle encrypted?

Then maybe the same could be said for all web access that uses SSL (i.e. since relatively recently also Google and Facebook, etc.)?

I read somewhere, don’t remember where, that the NSA is in principle legally allowed to store any encrypted conversations, or maybe that is not so?

Normally you would expect that this would not count anyway, if the conversations can be decrypted, but in the light of all these Orwellian distortions of language and common sense, I am no sure… 😉

Lelala October 2, 2013 3:42 AM

The funny thing is:
Even in the current shutdown phase, you can bet there are no implications due the money-shortage on the work of the NSA.
(Since it is rated as “important”, in comparison to other people that have been sent home)
Important question is: How do you think that the NSA get out of this? (do not forget: tons of jobs are attached to this behemoth)

wtpayne October 2, 2013 4:06 AM

This surveillance, presumably, also includes US political figures, political advisers and senior government bureaucrats across a swathe of different departments?

Hmmm. Nothing need be said explicitly, of course, but that which is implied is pretty obvious.

65535 October 2, 2013 4:34 AM

To paraphrase General Alexander:

“We only bomb 1.6% of the earth’s surface. We don’t bomb the oceans and uninhabited land. We only bomb the cities where people live. That’s all!

Clapper: “Yes, that is correct. I answered Senators in the “least untruthful manner.”

Seriously, it is time to cut the NSA’s budget substantially. It is one of the fastest ways to control this run-away train. I doubt the FISA court or the Supreme Court will act any time soon.

65535 October 2, 2013 4:52 AM

Here is some more data on North American internet usage. I don’t know exactly how much Sandvine’s percentage breakdown chart in actual TBs. So, I am not sure if the “1.6%” touches more of our important communications.

See Sandvine’s data presentation

Romer October 2, 2013 5:25 AM

It is utterly unsurprising that “TIA never went away.”

In his 2010 book The Watchers, Shane Harris provides a complete 20-year history of the genesis and mutation of TIA into the programs that are now being revealed by Snowden.

We’ve been told about this kind of surveillance activity for more than a decade.

Carlos October 2, 2013 6:16 AM

” I’m sure all those NSA spooks think they’re doing the right thing, a necessary thing, that the ends justify the means, that desperate times require desperate measures”

And some, even if they think they’re doing something “ethically problematic” (to quote the great Mordin Solus) they can say that they’re only following orders.

Anonymous Poster October 2, 2013 6:57 AM

I am very tired of all this NSA Special High Intensity Technology (NSA-S.H.I.T).

Mike the goat October 2, 2013 8:01 AM

I guess we now have to reevaluate anything that the NSA has touched over the years in the name of auditing or improving security, e.g. selinux, openbsd crypto framework, encryption and hash algo’s, etc. I believe Microsoft worked with the gubbermint to get Windoze 7 certified to EAL4+ … Wonder what changes were made to facilitate that. Naturally I am much more wary of closed source but as we know some of this code is so terse and so few really know what to look for (look at OpenSSL source code and tell me it isn’t confusing. Then look at a more uh, sensible implementation like CyaSSL and see how much of a difference reasonably structured source makes in comprehension).

Okay, I will take my tin foil hat off now.

Asker October 2, 2013 8:46 AM

@Chris Travers
I keep wondering if the NSA has a project codenamed “Nobody” that listens to phone calls and reads emails. Such would be great, allowing elected officials to state truthfully that “Nobody is listening to your phone calls.”

LOL. That sounds like the sort of wordplay they would love.

whocares October 2, 2013 9:31 AM

Thinking about how much money companies all over the world have spent so many years for backdoored soft- and hardware … we should pierce the corporate veil to get money back. The soft- and hardware wasn’t working as described (=secure / improving security) and if the producer don’t want to pay … hey, they can take the NSLs and get the money from N.S.A. to pay their cheated customers.

Great modern times. The world is so small today and the data centers have grown anti-proportional ;-(

Dirk Praet October 2, 2013 9:54 AM

@ Chris Travers, @ Asker

I keep wondering if the NSA has a project codenamed “Nobody” that listens to phone calls and reads emails. Such would be great, allowing elected officials to state truthfully that “Nobody is listening to your phone calls.”

The 1973 Sergio Leone movie “My name is Nobody” starring Terence Hill as Nobody and the great Henry Fonda as gunslinger Jack Beauregard still is one of my all-time favourite spaghetti westerns. If you haven’t seen it, the fast draw slapping scene in the bar is an absolute (and hilarious) classic you can most probably find on YouTube somewhere.

@ Peter

If we don’t like that, then there should be a law which makes the use of metadata illegal. But that would be the shutdown of the internet.

Could you please explain how exactly regulation of collection and usage of meta/user data by tech companies and especially by the NSA is going to shut down the internet ? Or to put in the legendary words of judge Lucy Koh – currently giving Google a really hard time on the issue – to one of Apple’s lawyers during the Apple-Samsung patent trial: “Are you smoking crack ?”.

Anon10 October 2, 2013 10:16 AM


I suspect what Peter is getting at is that many Internet companies
would cease to be profitable if all targeted advertising was banned.

Clive Robinson October 2, 2013 10:54 AM

@ Anonymous Poster,

    I am very tired of all this NSA Special High Intensity Technology

Err I think you mean “Highly Invasive” not high intensity, otherwise yup the rest is correct 😉

Romer October 2, 2013 11:43 AM

@Peter @Dirk @Anon10

It is a serious and immediate problem for all of us to decide who actually owns all of that allegedly inconsequential “metadata” and “exhaust” (big data euphemism ) which is so freely and aggressively captured stored analyzed examined and monetized by the surveillance/Big Data cartels.

Answering that is a legal and technical imperative …. certainly not suitable to a Congressional circus or …. much less to a secret court or to parasitic Californian billionaires.

It starts with the understanding that your metadata and your exhaust are both your data…. and that both are your property.

RemoteObserver October 2, 2013 12:51 PM

Please rename the U.S. to the United States Secure Republic, as it’s abbreviation is free these days.

Peter October 2, 2013 2:52 PM

@ Dirk Praet,
Yes, like Anon 10 said, but not only are the internet companies getting their profits from the targeted advertising, but also from selling the bulk user/metadata to marketing companies, who are using them for their marketing strategies in general.

Without that money, all the free internet communication platforms would stop to exist, probably leaving the internet to be a commercial advertising channel.

My point is that both governments and commercial companies are heavily relying on those user/metadata, and that in both cases there are of course (rather small) risks of privacy violations.

Peter October 2, 2013 3:10 PM

@ Romer
Yes, that’s the more fundamental question to be asked: who decides over what happens with all those data.

Personally, I think that saying that these data are your property is not the right way, as the property and especially the copyright laws have become an instrument just for securing profits of the big companies. Nevertheless I think that people should get more influence on what happens with their data. New ways have to be found for that.

Nobody from Switzerland October 2, 2013 4:05 PM

Somewhat off-topic (or maybe not all that much)

@Chris Travers
The first instance I know of someone making use of such a “Nobody” trick was Odysseus in this part of Homer’s Odyssey. The one-eyed cyclops in the story does, of course, also remind quite a bit of the NSA (or at least perception of it) and also resembles the one-eyed steep pyramid from the flip side of the Great Seal of the USA that was also in the TIA logo.

MUHAHAHAA October 2, 2013 5:02 PM

End Of The Silk Road: FBI Says It’s Busted The Web’s Biggest Anonymous Drug Black Market

“This is supposed to be some invisible black market bazaar. We made it visible,” says an FBI spokesperson, who asked not to be named. “When you interviewed [Ulbricht], he said he would never be arrested. But no one is beyond the reach of the FBI. We will find you.”

Dirk Praet October 2, 2013 6:17 PM

@ Clive

I am very tired of all this NSA Special High Intensity Technology

@ Anonymous Poster was probably referring to a very old joke email involving Special High Intensity Training.

@ Peter

While it is true that a gang of well-known internet behemoths heavily rely on largely unregulated user data mining, I believe it to be an exaggeration that the internet would collapse without them. Personally, I am doing just fine without Google, Facebook, Yahoo and the like. Then again, looking at a lot of especially young people around me, their disappearance or substantial shift in business model away from free services would indeed be perceived as a cataclysmic blow to the internet as they know it.

A lot of folks are just starting to understand to which extent both corporations and government agencies are tracing their every move, and how that may impact them. Legal or not, it is mass surveillance and to many of us an unacceptable invasion of privacy we should be able to opt out of.

The internet is a continuously changing landscape that was fine before Google, Facebook, ubiquitous user profiling and “big data”, and it will still be around long after their gone. Just like empires, corporations and business models come and go. If they can’t adapt or evolve, they become obsolete and perish, while the rest of the world moves on and others take their place.

@ RemoteObserver

Please rename the U.S. to the United States Secure Republic, as it’s abbreviation is free these days.

  • 1

Wesley Parish October 3, 2013 2:35 AM

At the time I was writing this, I failed to believe I was satirizing anything. I was just having some fun with a story and a concept.

Uncle Sam was a good man, everybody knows
Spent a trillion dollars on just one suit of clothes
He was a good man, that good old Uncle Sam


Billy de Lyons said, “Uncle Sam
Please don’t take my life,
I’ve got two little babes
And a darling loving wife
You are a good man
Your name is Uncle Sam”

“What do I care about your two little babes,
Your darling loving wife,
You done bought a brand new hat
And I’m bound to take your life!
I am a good man
and my name is Uncle Sam!”

Alain from Switzerland October 3, 2013 2:44 AM

One more: Always have two people do one thing; not only does this reduce the room for whistleblowers and moles to move and it does increase the budget, you can also always truthfully say the no one did it.

SchneieronSecurityFan October 4, 2013 3:55 AM

These revelations come out slowly enough so that by the end of 2013, it can be revealed that the U.S. government records just about all data communications without panicking the public.

alexandre October 4, 2013 3:00 PM

In this post Andrey Filippov describe his 10+ y. experience with FPGA programming and put some strong arguments on why software should be Free.

I think it may be interesting to the readers of this blog.


“If the Soviet government had the same level of control over the recorders as the FPGA manufacturers have now over the required development tools, we would never be able to listen to Vysotsky or the Beatles.”

“Soviet people did not have private property (only so called “personal property”) – virtually everything belonged to the State. Same with the users of proprietary software – you do not own what you paid money for, you are just granted a temporary right to use it.”

David Conrad October 4, 2013 3:06 PM

Ward Abbott: “The Treadstone Project has already been terminated. It was designed primarily as a sort of advanced game program. We’d hoped it might build into a good training platform but, quite honestly, for a strictly theoretical exercise, the cost-benefit ratio was just too high. It’s all but decommissioned at this point. All right. What’s next? Okay. This is… Blackbriar. Blackbriar is a joint DOD communications program that we really feel has good traction to it. It’s got legs. It’ll run and run.”

Garfinkel October 4, 2013 3:15 PM

“If the Soviet government had the same level of control over the recorders as the FPGA manufacturers have now over the required development tools, we would never be able to listen to Vysotsky or the Beatles.”

If Hitler or Stalin had the surveillance capabilities of US and UK…hmm yea for the sake of those over whom they had power, I am glad they didn’t.

In this current situation you will likely not have FPGA software where the manufacturer does not have control…if you did who knows what kind of surveillance-evading gadgets you could build…

It all comes down to the same multi-pronged ideas advanced by the No Such Agency et al

econobiekr October 4, 2013 3:19 PM

Snooping of the NSA is akin “ye olde days” of the sheriff sitting up in the church bell tower watching the citizenry gather on the town greene to watch a puppet play. The sheriff can see all the townspeople and their flaws without them knowing it…

Problem is that the sheriff today could be performing algorithmic data mining and selling/giving the information to commercial enterprises such as Wall Street allowing those company’s to profit by redistributing wealth (from the masses to the 0.0001%) in even greater manner than ever. Heck, the sheriff might not even know that he is giving the information away….

And, of course, who watches the sheriff to make sure he continues to be honest?

Garfinkel October 4, 2013 3:19 PM

If I was an evil overlord and wanted to take over the USA without anybody noticing… I couldn’t do it better than Keith.

Keith Alexander already has more de facto power than what his official authority would give him…

…although if I wanted to be like him, I would first adopt a motto like “Do No Evil” which I would feed to people for years so they really believed that I Am Such A Great Nice Guy. After all people do seem to place a lot of stock on such slogans. Never mind what the real story is.

anonEE October 4, 2013 10:34 PM


— Not much chance microprocessor in resistor. Nor in any other passive. Way too expensive. Passives cheap. Semiconductors not cheap.

— Microprocessor could fit, if very small die, yes. But no way to hook up for any input or output. RF only work so well. Shield and nothing.

— If connected to wires, semiconductor make linear part non-linear. No way around. Model as series back-to-back diodes, parallel with actual resistor. Have AC fun. Test away. Diodes must there: ESD.

— Introduce resistors to Mr. van de Graff. Small change in value. Fry chips.

— Introduce shield metal to Mr. Blowtorch. Hidden semiconductors not take heat.

— Down with NSAKGB! Long live freedom! Mom! Apple pie!

O'Brien October 9, 2013 6:29 PM

NSA Storing Internet Data, Social Networking Data,

and where do they get this from? From their partners Google+ and Facebook, of course.

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