Every week seems to bring fresh revelations about the National Security Agency’s data collection programs and how they have been used to monitor not just foreign terrorists, but also U.S. citizens at home. Last week, Sen. Ron Wyden, (D-Ore.) a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the news that the NSA had violated its own restrictions thousands of times was “the tip of the iceberg” of malfeasance by intelligence agencies. In the meantime, here are five ways you can trigger an NSA investigation.
Typing Al-Qaeda into your e-mail subject line could raise red flags at NSA. So will phrases like “military intelligence, Scully, Artichoke, Playboy, gorilla (and) William Gates,” according to a list first published in 1998.
What’s changed since then is that the NSA is now collecting the content of domestic e-mails, rather than just the “metadata” or information in the subject line and IP addresses, says Thomas Andrews Blake, a senior NSA manager turned whistleblower who resigned in 2008. He was later acquitted of charges he leaked information about wasteful NSA programs to the Baltimore Sun newspaper.
“Keyword searching or spotting -- although its fraught with limitations because you will get a lot of false positives -- has been the way to see what is relevant,” Blake told Discovery News. “What they are doing is seizing first and searching later.”
It’s not just bad guys who want to hide the content of their e-mails. So, too, do inventors, attorneys, investors, scriptwriters and others who may want to encrypt their correspondence so it can’t be read by rival parties in business deals. But just the act of encryption can also be suspicious, Blake said.
Some encryption measures may work, other can be broken by NSA mathematicians. Also use of Tor, a software program designed to help foreign activists evade government censorship in places like Egypt, Syria or Libya, may also be triggering NSA searches domestically. “There’s a paradox of privacy,” he said. “Even a lot of the standard layers of protection, the email providers only provide (encryption) when the e-mail is transmitted, not when it is stored, which still makes you vulnerable.”
An U.S. based encrypted e-mail service, Lavabit, shut itself down last week, rather than comply with government orders.
Flying to Lahore, Pakistan or Yemen for vacation may get you a look-see. But so will boarding the same plane with anyone on a terrorist watch list (of which there are several), according to William Binney, an NSA cryptographer and mathematician who resigned in October 2001 and went on to denounce many such programs to Congress.
“What they do is look at who else is traveling and look at groupings for other flights,” Binney told Discovery News. “You are looking at the random probability of people traveling together on the same flight.”
Just hope the odds are in your favor.
Frequent phone, Skype chats or VOIP calls to certain Middle East counties are a no-brainer. But the recent NSA audit reported in the Washington Post found that NSA analysts also mixed up the country code for Egypt (20) with the area code for Washington, D.C. (202). Ex-NSA analyst Russell Tice has alleged that the NSA has wiretapped the phones of U.S. politicians, including those with oversight over the agency.
“I suspect its being done to blackmail them,” Tice told Discovery News. The agency has denied Tice’s allegations.
Several years ago, reports surfaced about the U.S. Treasury Department’s SWIFT program to monitor financial transactions by foreign nationals and terror suspects. But NSA whistleblowers, including new leaks by Edward Snowden, allege that intelligence data collection has been expanded to credit card transactions, airline ticket reservations and bank records all under various surveillance programs.
“We’re all foreigners now,” said Blake.