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The Government is Spying on You | NSA Triples Collection of U.S. Phone Records

“These programs were never about terrorism: they’re about economic spying, social control, and diplomatic manipulation. They’re about power.” – Edward Snowden, NSA whistleblower


Ever get the feeling you’re being watched? From building back doors, to hijacking your cellular devices and web cams, to straight up hacking, these are the scary methods used by the NSA to keep tabs on everyone.

The U.S. National Security Agency collected 534 million records of phone calls and text messages of Americans last year, more than triple gathered in 2017, a U.S. intelligence agency report released .

The sharp increase from 151 million occurred during the second full year of a new surveillance system established at the spy agency after U.S. lawmakers passed a law in 2015 that sought to limit its ability to collect such records in bulk.

The spike in collection of call records coincided with an increase reported across other surveillance methods, raising questions from some privacy advocates who are concerned about potential government overreach and intrusion into the lives of U.S. citizens.

Government surveillance is nothing new, but it has taken on a new life in the digital age. Revelations made by Edward Snowden and Julian Assange have shown that advanced surveillance technology is very much real.

The National Security Agency has its roots in early cryptography. In 1943, the US and UK formed the BRUSA Agreement, in which they agreed to share all special intelligence derived by cryptanalysis of the communications of the Axis powers.

This would lead to the establishment of Five Eyes—a signals intelligence sharing alliance between the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

Fast forward to January 2019, and over half of the world’s population actively uses the Internet. As the world has evolved, so too has Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) gathering, to the extent that a cyber-military-industrial-complex has been born. Many had speculated about the capabilities of the NSA, but it wasn’t until Edward Snowden leaked troves of top secret documents in 2013 that we had proof. Here is just a small fraction of the Intelligence Community’s spy tools.

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ECHELON is a global surveillance system originally disclosed by former Lockheed employee Margaret Newsham in 1988. She blew the whistle after becoming disillusioned by the unconstitutional surveillance of US citizens when she realized the voice on a private call she was intercepting was that of US Senator Strom Thurmond.

The Government is Spying on You | NSA Triples Collection of U.S. Phone Records
System diagram of the ECHELON satellite intercept station of the NSA at the Yakima Research Station (YRS) [67] TOPCO = Terminal Operations Control CCS = Computer Control Subsystem STEAMS = System Test, Evaluation, Analysis, and Monitoring Subsystem SPS = Signal Processing Subsystem TTDM = Teletype Demodulator

After she blew the whistle Journalists started investigating the program and discovered that it could intercept almost any electronic communication, be it a phone conversation, mobile phone call, e-mail message, fax transmission, Internet browsing history, or satellite transmission. Radomes at a Royal Air Force base in North Yorkshire, England, are used to intercept satellite communications.


The Government is Spying on You | NSA Triples Collection of U.S. Phone Records
The worldwide heat map from the NSA’s data visualisation tool BOUNDLESSINFORMANT, showing that during a 30-day period, 97 billion internet data records (DNI) and 124 billion telephony data records (DNR) were collected.

BOUNDLESS INFORMANT is a tool used to analyze the exabytes of data (which is millions of terabytes) that is stored at the NSA’s Utah Data Center. BOUNDLESS INFORMANT slides reveal that in a 30-day period in 2013, the NSA collected over 97 billion internet data records and 124 billion telephone data records. Three billion of those data elements came from inside the United States—more than came from Russia.


The Government is Spying on You | NSA Triples Collection of U.S. Phone Records
Slide from an NSA presentation about XKeyscore, showing a worldmap with the locations of XKeyscore servers

XKeyscore allows NSA analysts to access emails, online chats, and browsing histories of millions people around the world. The Guardian revealed that the program can collect “nearly everything a user does on the internet” and allows analysts to “search without prior authorization through vast databases containing emails, chats and the browsing histories of millions of individuals.”



The Government is Spying on You | NSA Triples Collection of U.S. Phone Records
Slide showing that much of the world’s communications flow through the U.S.

PRISM harvests data directly from the servers of Big Tech companies including Microsoft, Yahoo!, Google, Facebook, Skype, YouTube, and Apple. PRISM began with the passage of the Protect America Act under George W. Bush in 2007.

According to a 2014 report by the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, under PRISM the government needs only send an email address to a communications provider in order to acquire that person’s communications. A portion of that information is shared with the CIA and FBI.


Leaked NSA slides show the year that collection began with each provider. Note that Apple didn’t get on board until after the death of Steve Jobs.


DoublePulsar was a backdoor implant that allowed the NSA to take complete and unrestricted control over a target’s computer. A mysterious hacker group called The Shadow Brokers leaked this powerful tool to the world in April 2017. Within weeks, it and its predecessors had caused the worldwide WannaCry ransomware event, which infected more than 230,000 computers in over 150 countries in its first day and ultimately infected over 400,000 computers.


The Government is Spying on You | NSA Triples Collection of U.S. Phone Records
Screenshot of a WannaCry ransomware attack on Windows 8

EternalBlue was another leaked NSA exploit which was part of the WannaCry virus. The NSA only grudgingly revealed the security flaw to Microsoft after they found out about its theft. Brad Smith, Microsoft’s president and chief legal officer, lambasted the NSA for stockpiling vulnerabilities rather than disclosing them to developers in order to protect citizens.

Weeping Angel

The Government is Spying on You | NSA Triples Collection of U.S. Phone Records
Wikileaks claims UK government helped CIA hack Samsung smart TVs to turn them into ‘microphones’

Weeping Angel was published by WikiLeaks in 2017 and shows how the CIA can turn Samsung smart TVs into bugging devices. Once installed, the tool enables covert recording through the TV’s built-in microphones, and while the television falsely appears to be turned off.

That program was part of a larger publication called Vault7, which also showed CIA plans to infect vehicle control systems used by modern cars and trucks. This would permit the CIA to engage in nearly undetectable assassinations, and some speculate that the death of Michael Hastings could have been pulled off this way.

This only begins to scratch the surface of cyber surveillance programs, but we encourage you to check out Wikipedia’s Global Surveillance portal, as it has a lot of great information on the subject.

Has the NSA gone too far? Are these surveillance programs necessary? Do you think they spy on ordinary people without justification?

Let us know what you think in the comments below, like, share, and stay strange!

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