When 2013 began, the general public had no idea who Edward Joseph Snowden was, but by the end of the year, everyone knew his name. Snowden, a former CIA employee who spent time working with the NSA, decided to share highly classified information with several leading journalists, who then broke the news to the world.
It’s no exaggeration to say that Snowden’s astonishing revelations have changed the world as we know it, shedding damning light on intelligence agencies and systems all over the world and making countless people think long and hard about their own privacy, anonymity, and security.
“We had a cyber Pearl Harbor. His name was Edward Snowden.” – Ashton Carter, Former Secretary of Defense
Countless stories have been written, and debates have raged in the years since the leak began, and everyone has their view on Snowden and the mind-blowing information he shared with the world. His actions even led to the development of the USA Freedom Act, which was designed to limit the amount and type of data that could be monitored and recorded.
However, the fact of the matter, as Snowden’s leaks revealed, is that there’s a whole lot of spying and secret data-gathering going on behind-the-scenes of our lives. There’s still probably plenty that we don’t even know, but Snowden’s info helped to blow the whole thing open. Here are some breakdowns of some of the biggest and most important revelations he shared.
The NSA Can Demand Call Records And Data From Telephone Companies
This was actually one of the first major stories to come out in the wake of the Snowden leaks, but it’s still one of the most important. The initial story showed that Verizon, one of the biggest telephone companies around, was forced to provide the NSA with data and records for almost all of its customers.
Later on, we saw that Verizon wasn’t the only company involved in this sort of thing. Other major telephone companies like Sprint and AT&T were also handing over phone records and info to the intelligence agency without customers having any idea what was going on.
This revelation was enormous and generated significant debate at the time, with many of those debates still ongoing to this day. Then-President Barack Obama announced plans to overhaul the NSA’s data collection programs in what would eventually lead to the development of the USA Freedom Act.
Triggering A Wave Of Privacy Concerns
“When you give up your privacy, you give up your power.” – Thor Benson, Journalist
This first major leak from Snowden also had a big effect on public views about surveillance and privacy. Before then, many people had laughed off the thought of the NSA spying on their phone calls and taking their data behind their backs.
The whole notion seemed like something out of a conspiracy theory, but Snowden’s leaks proved that it was very real. From there, the public began to put more focus on protecting their mobile privacy in any way possible, as well as thinking more deeply about privacy and anonymity online through the increased use of VPNs.
The Power Of Smurfs
Sticking with the phone theme, Snowden’s leaks also taught us that the GCHQ, which is essentially the British version of the NSA, has the terrifying ability to actually control people’s phones, even when they’re switched off. To do this, they make use of a series of tools named after Smurfs, the little blue cartoon characters first created in an old Belgian comic series.
The Smurfs And What They Do
“There will come a time when it isn’t ‘They’re spying on me through my phone’ anymore. Eventually, it will be ‘My phone is spying on me.'” – Philip K. Dick, Author
Snowden revealed that the GCHQ had a whole list of Smurf tools, each with its own use and purpose. Here are some examples:
- Dreamy Smurf – Has the ability to turn phones on or off remotely
- Nosey Smurf – Has the ability to make use of the phone’s microphone to listen to conversations and noise in the local area
- Tracker Smurf – Has the ability to precisely track your position
- Paranoid Smurf – Works to hide the activities of the other Smurfs to prevent detection
As we can see, the power of these ‘Smurfs’ is quite terrifying. Naturally, these tools and software programs are only designed to be used against criminals and suspected terrorists, but the very fact that such technology exists was enough to send a shiver down the spine of many members of the general public.
“The government doesn’t want any system of transmitting information to remain unbroken unless it’s under its own control.” – Isaac Asimov, Tales of the Black Widowers
By far, one of the scariest revelations for the American public was the existence of PRISM. PRISM was the code name given to an NSA program in which the agency could effectively demand data from major tech and internet companies like Google, Facebook, and Apple.
PRISM, it turned out, has been a major source of intelligence for NSA reports, and it was a terrifying thing for the general public to learn about. People did respond, however, through protests, debates, and demonstrations, as well as encouraging each another to start focusing more strongly on protecting privacy and anonymity online.
The sorts of content the NSA could collect included search histories, downloads, emails, and more. The focus of the program was to track potential terrorism suspects, but the system effectively allowed for the data of almost any internet user to be taken, making it a huge threat to people’s privacy.
The NSA Can Intercept Packages Before They Reach Your Home
An astonishing report published in the German newspaper ‘Der Spiegel’ revealed that the NSA has a whole list of scary surveillance systems and methods in place to keep their eyes everywhere and spy on people without them being any the wiser.
The report showed that the NSA was able to intercept package deliveries that were on their way to a person’s home. From there, intelligence agents could open up the packages and see what was inside, as well as adding their own espionage tools and software programs.
That way, they could effectively find packages that were going into suspects’ homes, add bugs and traces to the items inside, and monitor what the suspect was using the equipment for and what was going on behind closed doors.
The ANT Catalog
Der Spiegel’s report went on to highlight some of the tools that could be used, comparing the list to a ‘mail-order catalog.’ The tools were all grouped under the acronym ANT, which stands for Advanced Network Technology. Each tool has its own codename and product listing in the ‘catalog,’ which describes its functions and uses.
ANT Tool Examples:
- SURLYSPAWN – Able to log keystrokes on a computer and transmit them wirelessly, even when the computer isn’t connected to the internet
- CANDYGRAM – Able to imitate a GSM cell phone tower to monitor cell communications
- FIREWALK – Designed to look just like a regular RJ45 internet socket, this tool can inject and monitor device data via radio waves
- MONKEYCALENDAR – Able to transmit a cell phone’s geolocation via a secret text message
- COTTONMOUTH – Designed to look like USB and Ethernet connectors, these tools can hack into computers and provide remote access
Again, just like the Smurf tools used by the GCHQ in the United Kingdom, these code named espionage tools and pieces of equipment were very scary to learn about for many people as they proved that NSA agents had access to gear that could make surveillance incredibly easy for them and almost entirely undetectable for their targets.
The NSA Can Even Hack Tech Giants
An article in The Washington Post stated that the NSA had actually hacked into data centers of major tech giants Google and Yahoo in order to monitor communications and traffic at these centers.
This was a particularly scary revelation for members of the general public as it proved that there were almost no limits to what the NSA’s spy tools were capable of. If even the biggest internet companies on the planet could be hacked with such apparent ease, was anyone really safe?
It was also shocking for people to see that the NSA was prepared to use its wealth of hacking tools against big American companies. Google and Yahoo both released statements to deny any awareness of the surveillance and express their shock and dismay, with Yahoo even taking action to encrypt its connections.
The former CEO of Yahoo, Marissa Meyer, stated that Yahoo would not provide the NSA with any access to its data centers and never had in the past. This helped to reassure many members of the public and general internet users, but a lot of people still worried that big companies were making shady deals behind their backs.
Britain’s NSA Spies On Fiber Optic Connections All Over The Globe
The GCHQ, Britain’s NSA equivalent, was also revealed to use various surveillance tools to hack into fiber optic cables and connections all over the globe. This is all done under the code name ‘Tempora,’ which is a surveillance system that has been running since 2011.
This system essentially involved the GCHQ placing interceptors on several hundred fiber optic cables going in and out of the United Kingdom. These interceptors could seize data directly from the cables, with intelligence agents then closely observing and analyzing that data for anything that they might deem interesting or worthy of further investigation.
According to Snowden’s leaks, the information gathered by GCHQ via Tempora could also be shared with the NSA, with hundreds of thousands of NSA contractors being able to look at this data.
The NSA Collects Contact Lists
“There has never been a time in human history where so many people routinely carry recording and surveillance devices.” – Steven Magee, Author
Part of the NSA’s surveillance and anti-terrorism measures also include the collection of countless email and contact lists from internet and smartphone users. Snowden’s leaks showed that up to 250 million of these contact lists could be taken each year.
It’s important to note that this system was only used overseas and aimed at non-US citizens, but the fact of the matter is that when literally hundreds of thousands of these lists are being collected all over the globe, and a lot of Americans also happen to be traveling in foreign places, it’s inevitable that their data is also going to be at risk.
Boundless Informant Proved That The NSA Spied On Americans
Boundless Informant (or BOUNDLESSINFORMANT) is the code name given to a big data analysis tool used by the NSA. This tool basically tracks all of the metadata collected by the NSA around the world and makes a kind of ‘heatmap’ of that data to show where it came from and which countries are targeted most frequently.
The tool showed that billions of pieces of information were being collected every single month, and it also showed that several billion pieces were being taken from citizens of the United States. This was despite the fact that the NSA had specifically stated to Congress that it did not gather data on millions of American citizens and didn’t even have the capacity to do so.
XKeyScore Allows The NSA To Track Anyone’s Online Activity
“You could read anyone’s email in the world, anybody you’ve got an email address for. Any website: You can watch traffic to and from it. Any computer that an individual sits at: You can watch it. Any laptop that you’re tracking: you can follow it as it moves from place to place throughout the world. It’s a one-stop-shop for access to the NSA’s information.”
That’s how Edward Snowden describes the power of XKeyScore, which is perhaps the most powerful NSA internet espionage tool of them all. Also known as XKS, this computer system is designed to search through and analyze internet data from users all over the globe, and huge amounts of that data are being collected each and every day.
What’s more, all of that data can then be shared with other intelligence agencies as part of the ‘Five Eyes‘ and ‘Fourteen Eyes’ alliances, so agencies like the GCHQ in the United Kingdom or the Defense Intelligence Headquarters of Japan could also get access to information on a person’s browsing habits, search history, and general internet usage.
Fighting Back Against Internet Surveillance
With so many harrowing revelations coming out of the Snowden leaks, especially in regard to internet surveillance through systems like XKeyScore, many people want to take action to be safer online and keep their data private.
That’s why statistics are showing a big leap in the number of people making use of virtual private networks (VPNs). VPN providers like ExpressVPN and NordVPN are essentially able to encrypt your internet connections and hide your presence online, meaning that even if attempts were made to track your activity, they wouldn’t be successful.
Other VPNs Worth Checking Out:
Pros And Cons Of Using A VPN
|Hide your online presence and encrypt your connections for total anonymity||Monthly/Annual subscription fees|
|Stay safe from hackers and malicious software.||Connection speeds can sometimes vary, depending on the VPN you choose|
|Access region-locked or restricted content and services like Netflix|
|Enjoy total security when traveling.|
The NSA Spies On Global Leaders
We’ve seen that giant tech companies like Google and Apple aren’t safe from the NSA’s spy tools, and the same can be said for world leaders like presidents and prime ministers. Many documents from Snowden’s files have revealed that the NSA has targeted over 120 different global leaders over the years, spying on their communications and actually listening in on their phone conversations.
Examples Of Leaders Who Have Been Hacked:
The likes of former Brazilian President Dilma Roussef, former Mexican President Felipe Calderon, and current German Chancellor Angela Merkel have all been victims of the NSA’s surveillance. The NSA was even able to spy on meetings between multiple world leaders at the likes of the G8 and G20 summits.
The Knock-On Effect
This sort of surveillance doesn’t directly affect the average member of the general public, but the revelations have already led to rising tensions between the United States and several other countries around the world. For example, when Snowden revealed that the NSA had been spying on China, the relationship between the two countries was dealt a big blow.
The NSA Actively Works Against Internet Encryption
Again, we can see another scary revelation for internet users all over the world as Snowden’s leaks also revealed that the NSA had teams of agents tasked with breaking down widely-used encryption and security measures used online.
A document from the GCHQ stated: “For the past decade, NSA has led an aggressive, multi-pronged effort to break widely used internet encryption technologies… Vast amounts of encrypted internet data which have up till now been discarded are now exploitable”.
This NSA program was nicknamed Bullrun and made use of different hacking tools like brute-force attacks in order to break through standard encryption systems like HTTPS and SSL, which are used all over the internet for systems like online banking and purchases.
The NSA Has Its Own ‘Special Forces’ Team Of Hackers
As well as having a myriad of remarkably powerful hacking tools and systems at its disposal, the NSA can also call on the services of the “Tailored Access Operations” team. Abbreviated to TAO, this team is made up of elite hackers who can make use of various tools (like those seen in the ANT catalog, above) in order to hack into computers with astonishing ease.
With an arsenal of hacking systems and devices to choose from, the TAO team is able to break into computers regardless of whether they’re online or offline. From there, they can monitor location, internet activity, keystrokes, communications, and more, as well as infecting the device with Trojan horses and other forms of malware.
Intelligence Agencies Can Even Spy On You Through Angry Birds
It might sound too crazy to be true, but the reports and leaks have also stated that intelligence agencies like the NSA or the British GCHQ can actually make use of flaws in the designs of certain apps, including popular mobile games like Angry Birds, to spy on smartphone users. These apps are nicknamed ‘leaky apps,’ and there are millions of examples out there.
Just by opening a simple game, the sort of thing that millions of people are doing every single day while riding the train to work or taking a quick coffee break, you could be providing intelligence agencies with personal data like your age, sex, name, email address, and even your current location.
How Does It Happen?
These information ‘leaks’ are all down to the fact that many apps often demand access to some of your personal information in order to provide additional functionality like social media integration and the ability to share your high scores or play with friends. These apps aren’t being made by security experts, so they can come with a few little holes for intelligence agencies or malicious hackers to exploit.
The extent to which intelligence agencies can use apps to obtain information about a user isn’t fully clear, but it is believed that as well as basic info and current location, agents could also use apps to learn about your political alignment, sexual orientation, income, marital status, education level, and more!
Leaky App Examples:
- Google Maps