Security

NSA has access to 75% of U.S. Internet traffic in newly revealed programs

NSA t-shirt
Image Credit: Meghan Kelly/VentureBeat

The National Security Agency has access to 75 percent of Internet traffic in the United States, according to the Wall Street Journal.

While we know the NSA has great reach, it was not until today that we understood just how far that reach went. The information collected includes both the previously reported “metadata,” which includes e-mail addresses, phone numbers, and time stamps as well as the actual content of those messages.

The NSA is “not wallowing willy-nilly” looking through this content, according to a government official speaking with the Wall Street Journal. “[It wants] high-grade ore.”

These programs are not the same as the PRISM surveillance program revealed by NSA former contractor Edward Snowden in June. These programs are code-named Blarney, Fairview, Oakstar, Lithium, and Stormbrew, according to the Wall Street Journal. Others exist and may deal with specific service providers. Blarney is believed to represent the data-share relationship with AT&T.

The collection method is both simple and complex. The NSA creates partnerships with telecommunications, technology, and Internet service providers. It then sets up technologies that receive data from these companies and can demand that data with National Security Letters.

Things get complicated when you look at the way in which companies and the NSA filter those communications. It seems the service providers can filter content on their own end and then copy that stream of data and send it to the NSA. The NSA then further filters it for “strong indicators,” stripping away or minimizing any information not pertaining to a specific foreign intelligence mission.

Former government officials speaking with the Wall Street Journal explained that though the NSA has access to 75 percent of U.S. citizens’ communications, it only sees a very small percentage of that. The goal for the NSA continues to be finding terrorists and other so-called “bad actors,” and it supposedly only uses citizens’ communications to that end.

The NSA cannot actually reach its hands beyond the border and grab any content it likes from these companies either, according to the Wall Street Journal‘s sources.

A recent document that Snowden leaked to the Guardian explained that the NSA does, in some cases, save U.S. citizens’ information. The NSA can then query that information from its FISA business records database.

At his talk at security conference Black Hat, NSA Director Gen. Keith B. Alexander addressed privacy concerns. He explained that privacy reports talk about the potential for abuse of this information, but he’s confident there isn’t any. He says that because of the auditing and oversight provided by all three branches of the government, the NSA has not had any problems with abuse. Furthermore, he explained that in order to query the databases, you must provide sound reasoning and that each request can be subject to audit. There are only 35 people approved to query the NSA’s databases.