Understanding the National Security Administration and Edward Snowden’s Leaks

According to John Oliver on Last Week Tonight, there are many Americans who still do not understand the National Security Administration (“NSA”) programs that Edward Snowden revealed in 2013. Many Americans don’t know who Snowden is, what he did, that he’s not the Wikileaks guy (that’s Julian Assange), or why his revelations about the state of national security matters.

Regardless of how you feel about Snowden, the NSA, and surveillance generally, it’s likely that, unless you’re a huge computer or political nerd, you don’t fully understand PRISM, MUSCULAR, X-KEYSCORE, or the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court charged with overseeing these programs. The problem is that this issue involves a lot of highly technical jargon and acronyms that most people don’t understand.

If you want to know more, John Oliver has got you covered. In his infinite wisdom, he found a way to bring this topic down to a level we can all understand: dick pics. To learn more, click this link. It’ll be worth your time. Also, click here to go to Yes, that’s it’s real name.

But if you hate clicking cool links to learn cool things, just keep reading.

Who is Edward Snowden?

Snowden was a former NSA subcontractor who became disillusioned with what he saw as overreaching by the U.S. government in spying on American citizens and foreigners. He had access to a lot of sensitive information (data) that the NSA collected, as it claims, for the purpose of building intelligence to combat terrorism. Snowden disagreed with the lengths the NSA went to gain this data, believing that it was violating people’s privacy rights.

Because he disagreed with the NSA’s programs (discussed below), Snowden “blew the whistle” on them, which means that he brought their existence and methods to the public’s attention. As he says, he simply wanted the U.S. public to know about these programs so that we could have a meaningful discussion about whether we want to live in a society where the government effectively spies on most everything we do. It’s very Orwellian.

What are the NSA Programs PRISM, MUSCULAR, and X-KEYSCORE?

These are programs run by the NSA that Snowden blew the whistle on. To put simply, they’re like defensive football plays, kind of, with different players performing different functions and running different routes to achieve one major goal. In football, the defense tries to keep the other team from gaining yards and scoring. In the fight against terrorism, the NSA and other agencies try to prevent terrorists from blowing things up. The defensive linemen block the quarterback and running backs from running up the middle. The NSA intercepts information (data) sent via email or phone and reviews it for incriminating terrorism-related evidence to keep terrorists from exploding you. At least in theory.

PRISM is the most famous of these programs, so we’ll focus on it. The Washington Post has pictures, but I’ll just put it into words. Big internet companies (e.g. Yahoo, Google, Facebook, etc.) have servers that store information sent and received to those sites. So, when you write an email or a Facebook post, that information travels to a server where it’s stored and sent to the intended recipient. Think of it like snail mail. You write a letter (email), drive your car (internet highway) to the post office (Google’s server) and drop it off, and then the post office (Google) sends it to the intended recipient (grandma, because who else would you hand write a letter to in 2015). While the Google post office server has it, the NSA snatches it up. This is called “bulk data collection,” because they grab up just about everything.

Supporters of these NSA programs argue that bulk data collection doesn’t really tread on privacy rights, because it doesn’t collect the content of the calls and messages sent; instead, PRISM just shows the NSA when, how, and who sent what type of information (e.g. phone call, email, text) to whom. So they can see your envelope, the return address, and the intended recipient, but not the contents inside. However, that’s not quite true. Through all of the NSA’s programs combined, they can paint a pretty solid picture of what you’re doing, because we’re connected to so much communicating technology that it’s easy to track our moves. The NSA can see that I sent some emails from work this morning to other places in the city and, with relative ease, can figure out to whom exactly I sent them, then they can see that I did it again from home, and they can tell I got on Facebook and can draw a pretty good picture of which websites I visited. So they can see a good chunk of my day, and they’ve got that much without overreaching just slightly beyond the law, which requires that they only dive into the contents of my emails and phone calls (e.g. reading messages and listening to calls) if there’s a connection to terrorism.

While those limits sound pretty protective, in reality just about anybody can be on the “terror watch list.” This means that dubious connections can lead to you being watched closely by the NSA. Or as John Oliver puts it, they can see your dick pics.

So, at the end of the day, the NSA collects a lot of information about U.S. citizens and foreign persons here and abroad, and Edward Snowden tried to bring this issue to the attention of the public at large so that we could have a somewhat intelligent debate about it.