Five Revelations from Snowden’s Newest Leak

New report reveals how the NSA has been able to crack online encryption. “This is the golden age of spying,” says one former analyst

  • Share
  • Read Later
NSA / Reuters

The National Security Agency headquarters building in Fort Meade, Md.

A new round of disclosures from the former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden has revealed the intelligence agency’s ultimate goal: undo Internet privacy as we know it. According to some 50,000 leaked documents provided to the Guardian, ProPublica, and The New York Times, the NSA has circumvented or cracked some of the most widely used encryption software in its effort to monitor global communications. Still, documents reveal, some encryption systems continue to stymie the agency, and the NSA, according to the Times, is working toward a future in which it can “decode, in real time, all of the information flying over the world’s fiber optic cables and through its Internet hubs.”

The document dump unveils some of the U.S. and its allies’ most closely guarded state secrets—whereas highly classified information is often disseminated on a “need to know” basis, “there will be NO ‘need to know,’” with respect to the highly-classied program known as Bullrun, according to one document quoted by the Times.

“This is the golden age of spying,” one former NSA analyst told the Times.  Here are five things you need to know about Snowden’s latest leak.

  1. Often the NSA circumvents encryption by simply collaborating with cooperative technology companies (which are unidentified in the documents). At other times, it seems, the NSA has acquired encryption keys by hacking into a company’s servers. The documents indicate that the NSA is careful to reveal decrypted messages to other agencies only when such communications could plausibly have been acquired legally.
  2. By 2006, according to The New York Times, the NSA had cracked the communications of three foreign airlines, one travel reservation system, one foreign government’s nuclear department and a different foreign government’s Internet service. By 2010, the British GCHQ (the UK’s counterpart to the NSA) was reportedly deciphering encrypted VPN communications “for 30 targets and had set a goal of an additional 300.” According to the leaked documents, by 2012 the GCHQ had  acquired “new access opportunities” into Google’s systems.
  3. The full extent of the NSA’s highly classified encryption cracking program Bullrun is only known by top officials in the NSA and its counterpart agencies in Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Bullrun has successfully foiled several of the world’s standard encryption methods, including SSL (Secure Sockets Layer), VPN (virtual private networks), and the encryption on 4G (fourth generation) smartphones.
  4. Strong, non-commercial encryption systems still seem to thwart the NSA’s efforts. The PGP (short for Pretty Good Privacy) encryption protocol, for instance, has been a cause for NSA anxiety for decades. When PGP-inventor Phil Zimmerman announced the Zfone telephone encryption technology, NSA analysts reportedly received the news in an email titled “This can’t be good.”
  5. The NSA requested that The New York Times not publish its article describing the agency’s effectiveness in thwarting encryption methods, arguing that its success relies entirely on its ability to operate stealthily. Language in the documents themselves seems to echo this position. “These capabilities are among the Sigint [Signals Intelligence] community’s most fragile,” reads one document, according to the Times, “and the inadvertent disclosure of the simple ‘fact of’ could alert the adversary and result in immediate loss of the capability.” Some experts argue, however, that the NSA’s effort to monitor communications by cracking encryption methods may be undermining its other primary purpose: protecting the security of American communications. Many of the protocols it has cracked are the very things Americans use every day for activities like online banking and sending private emails under the assumption that the encryption is secure. “Those back doors could work against U.S. communications, too,” one academic told the Times.

[The New York Times]

23 comments
JoeDetracktor
JoeDetracktor

A solution to cell phone tracking, spying, eavesdropping, stalking and hacking can be found by searching youtube for detracktor.

jmac
jmac

Greenwald's partner had encrypted information confiscated at Heathrow.  Should Britain or the US try to find out what he had in case the information is in the hands of China or Russia or al Qaeda or . . . 

Of course NSA is going to try to crack any encryption code.   

destor23
destor23

"The NSA requested that The New York Times not publish its article describing the agency’s effectiveness in thwarting encryption methods, arguing that its success relies entirely on its ability to operate stealthily."

Why should the Times, or any publication, be expected to want the NSA to be effective at this?

arvay
arvay

OK, for me -- a radical leftist -- this is the point where collaboration starts with the other political wing.

It's time to stop this -- and a coalition of leftists, Randians and Republicans who actually believe in the Bill of Rights needs to form.

To impeach this president, who has violated his oath of office multiple times and who wants to drag the country into another disastrous war. He has made a full-throated defense of these outrageous violations of the Constitution. Killed American citizens without charge or warrant. Is threatening reporters who publish articles he doesn't want published. 

Once he's impeached, removed and subject to criminal law - we go go back to our fundamental differences, with some confidence that we can actually have a country to argue over. 

daniel_guibord
daniel_guibord

"Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety."

-- Benjamin Franklin

JohnRintala
JohnRintala

I read that he documents seized from David Miranda at Heathrow were encrypted using Truecrypt. Can we assume that Greenwald chose this method because it is open source and secure?

psychandtheology
psychandtheology

Wait a sec. While I agree that the NSA is doing lots of messed up stuff, being able to crack the encryption on enemy communications is pretty important. After all, deciphering Enigma, as I understand, was pretty critical to the Allies in winning WWII. As was keeping our ability to read their coded messages a secret. It's fair game. Seems like in this case, it just so happens that the encryption everyday people use may well be the same encryption that terrorists use. (To clarify, by "terrorists," I mean terrorists. Not protestors or people who disagree with the U.S. government or challenge police officers.) In fact, while fact-checking before I posted this, I saw that the Enigma machine was originally developed for the business market. So, I actually think that Snowden is the one in the wrong this time.


User18927
User18927

Anyone notice how old that picture is. Look at the cars in the parking lot.

PaulDirks
PaulDirks

Now's the perfect moment to remind everyone of this:

http://www.badattitudes.com/AshWeb.html 

The Democratic process resulted in this strategy being ruled out, but we went ahead and did it anyway. That's all you need to know.

GaryRMcCray
GaryRMcCray

So much of what Snowden has revealed and for which our government wants to throw him down a big hole and fill it back in actually reflect things our government is doing (to us) that we should be outraged about and which we should not accept.

In the Name of Homeland Security we have invited Big Brother to come in and allay the "Terrorist Threat" at any cost.

The cost is to our liberty, to our humanity and to everything that America has stood for until now.

The pursuit of "safety" at the expense of everything else is absolutely doomed to eventually backfire with cataclysmic results.

1984 is real, Orwell was just a little ahead of his time.

united_we_stand
united_we_stand

@arvay Sounds good, lets split both parties so we get four. We are in position to do that on the conservative side and will match you on your side. Create your own tea party style movement on the left which breaks away from authoritarianism and imperialism. I have never heard of any radical leftist reject authoritarianism though I'd love to see it. If you strongly believe in the bill of rights or limits on government power you are a conservative, a classic liberal. 

DanBruce
DanBruce

@daniel_guibord The key word is essential. I haven't seen any evidence, even in the Snowden leaks, that show how Americans have given up an essential liberty. If you count being able to secretly plan illegal activities as an essential liberty, then I am wrong, but no one has suggested that legal liberties have been infringed.

JohnRintala
JohnRintala

@psychandtheology---"To clarify, by "terrorists," I mean terrorists. Not protestors or people who disagree with the U.S. government or challenge police officers"

This kind of surveillance ends up being used against precisely such people. Remember McCarthy, J. Edgar Hoover and COINTELPRO.



jmac
jmac

@GaryRMcCray The US spy system is doing what it's always done.  So far, Snowden hasn't done anything but hurt US intelligence.   Has China cracked the encryption code that Greenwald's Brazilian partner was carrying around in an international airport?  Has Russia?    We have to assume they both have it.       

daniel_guibord
daniel_guibord

@DanBruce @daniel_guibord The key word in your statement is "an essential liberty". I insist on the word "an" in your statement. It is all "essential liberties" that make up "essential Liberty". When preserving one's Liberty against a totalitarian system or one on the way to become so, some activities will necessarily be illegal and secretly planned.

Anyone planning illegal activities, and who uses electronic means of communication (telephone, cellular, email, fax, etc.; encrypted or not) in the planning process does not have the necessary reasoning capabilities to overthrow the system which he/she is planning to overthrow.

jmac
jmac

@JohnRintala @psychandtheology You have to have the evidence that shows the government is using it's spying to go after you.   So far, you don't.   What we have so far is Snowden telling other countries how we spy on them. 

united_we_stand
united_we_stand

@jmac China nor Russia was much interested in what Snowden had. Those countries are well aware our government spies on everyone. It was only our close allies that were shocked. Mainly it shocked American citizens most of who believed that largescale conspiracies against the general public conducted by the government were impossible. They all had their world views overturned.