News & Politics

A Guide to the NSA's Perversion of Privacy: What Are the Most Outrageous Breaches into Your Life?

A look at the most egregious incursions into your privacy, courtesy of the NSA.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/Juergen Faelchle

It’s been eight months since the revelations of mass spying by the National Security Agency and allied intelligence services came to light, thanks to massive leaks by whistleblower Edward Snowden. Since the first story about how a secret court order gave the government access to millions of Verizon phone records, we’ve learned about many other overreaches by the federal government, including a government program that gains access to private information on popular services like Facebook, a tool the NSA can use to wiretap virtually anyone in the world, widespread spying on friendly foreign countries and even that the NSA has been infiltrating the online gaming world with forays into World of Warcraft.

Here’s a roundup of some of the most unnerving stories about the NSA, starting before the Snowden revelations, when numerous outlets began publishing stories about the agency’s ever-widening scope of surveillance.

Early March 2012: Wired Magazine’s James Banford reports on the NSA building the country’s largest spy center in the Utah desert—a $2 billion, million-square-foot structure. Former NSA mathematician William Binney describes a program codenamed Stellar Wind that from its earliest days had the capacity to record 320 million phone calls a day. Binney’s descriptions of the NSA’s activities were similar to those of former NSA analyst Russell Tice, who warned in 2009 that the agency “monitored all communications” of Americans.

Late March 2012: Georgia Democratic Rep. Hank Johnson questions NSA Director General Keith Alexander about the allegations made by Binney. Alexander denies that the NSA intercepts Americans’ phone calls, emails, bank records, text messages and other private information.

March 2013: Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), who has access to private information on U.S. intelligence agencies thanks to serving on the Intelligence Committee, asks the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper if the NSA collects data on millions of Americans. Clapper responds that it does not, at least “not wittingly.”

Early June 2013: The first of journalist Glenn Greenwald’s stories about the NSA comes out. Based on documents culled from ex-NSA contractor Edward Snowden, Greenwald revealed in the Guardian that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court ordered Verizon to turn over metadata from the phone records of millions of its customers. We first learn of PRISM, a still-mysterious government program used by U.S. and British intelligence agencies to suck up private information from popular online services like Facebook. A top-secret directive by President Obama ordering his top national security officials to draw up targets for potential cyber attacks is leaked.

Early June 2013: The Guardian reveals Boundless Informant, a data-mining tool that allowed the NSA to collect 3 billion pieces of intelligence from US computers in a single month in 2013. The tool’s largest targets were Iran, Pakistan and Jordan.

July 2013: Documents showing that U.S. intelligence has been monitoring the emails and phone calls of millions of Brazilian citizens cause a diplomatic uproar in Brazil.

Late July 2013: German complicity in NSA spying comes to light, bringing with it protests and political upheaval in Germany.

Early August 2013: Reps. Alan Grayson (D-FL) and Morgan Griffith (R-VA) provide Greenwald with access to letters and emails demonstrating that the NSA and House Intelligence Committee repeatedly turned down requests for members of Congress to get more information about the government’s spying programs.

Mid-August 2013: A leaked internal audit of the NSA found that from April 2011 to March 2012, the NSA had 2,776 “incidents” that were violations of the rules and court orders for surveillance of Americans or foreigners in the United States.

Late August 2013: A round of leaks published in Der Spiegel reveal more about how U.S. intelligence agencies are spying on European allies. The NSA itself declassifies three secret court opinion that showed that one of its surveillance programs gathered 56,000 emails and other forms of communication by Americans not connected to terrorism over a three-year period. The Washington Post learns that the NSA spends hundreds of millions of dollars paying companies for access to their fiber optic communications networks.

Early September 2013: There is more diplomatic unrest as stories emerge that the U.S. spied on Mexican and Brazilian presidents, and oil companies like Petrobras. The stories come shortly before a series of revelations that the U.S. and U.K. spy agencies have found ways around leading encryption and security methods. On September 11 it is revealed that the NSA shares data with Israel, including data on Americans.

Late September 2013: India is added to the overseas international row as leaks confirm that the U.S. spied on Indian leaders. Internal NSA documents are shown to list opponents of U.S. drone policies as “threats” and “adversaries.” It is revealed that NSA analysts spied on their love interests.

Early October 2013: Documents show that the NSA and British intelligence attacked the TOR network, a browser used by people who wish to remain anonymous. More documents show that Canada’s intelligence agencies, too, has been spying on the Brazilian government.

Mid-October 2013: The Washington Post runs documents revealing that the NSA collects millions of email address books from services like Yahoo, Gmail and Facebook using fiber-optic cables. The paper also writes that drone strikes are assisted by NSA data. A story about U.S. intelligence specifically monitoring German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone sets off a diplomatic row.

Late October 2013: We learn more about how Google, Yahoo and Microsoft were targeted by the NSA for hacking. The Vatican itself may be an NSA spying target.

Early November 2013: The Guardian further reveals how the NSA relies on cooperation with major telecoms to gain access to private data.

Late November 2013: It is shown that the NSA considered discrediting prominent Muslim figures by revealing their online porn habits and finances.

Early December 2013: A collaboration of several major newspapers shows that the NSA has been spying on online games including World of Warcraft and Second Life.

Mid-January 2014: The Washington Post shows how the NSA can access computers that are not even online—by implanting them with both malware and custom hardware. The Guardian and Channel 4 reveal the mass collection of foreign text messages.

Late January 2014: The CBC reveals that Canadian intelligence ran a pilot program that allowed it to track airline passengers for weeks after they logged onto airport wi-fi.

February 2014: Google, Microsoft and others release data detailing the information requests made to them by the government; the release came shortly after the tech titans struck an agreement with the feds to be less secretive about data requests.