Black Friday

NSA employees collect ‘Skilz’ points for successful snooping

Douglas Crawford

Douglas Crawford

June 24, 2014

If you want to motivate people to do a task, gamify it! That at least seems to be the thinking revealed in one of the Edward Snowden documents recently released by Der Speigal, which gives tantalising snippets of information on how XKeyscore (XKS) operators are encouraged to make ‘discoveries’.

With traditional targeting, analysts cast their nets wide into the murky waters of network traffic and haul in anything that gets caught in the net. We are like Forest Gump on his shrimping boat off the coast of Alabama pulling in a boot, toilet seat, seaweed, and there they are… three shrimp! We burn off a lot of resources getting those shrimp, those reportable documents or metadata used to target knowledge, and we deal with tones of toilet seats, the spam, and other junk. Then, we repeat the same process and hopefully catch enough “shrimp” to have ourselves a cocktail.

The author of the document is clearly having fun! He or she then goes on to enthuse about how new training methods for using the Xkeyscore system (where users simply select justifications for a search from dropdown lists of ‘operators’) encourage them to experiment, and make new discoveries without fear of legal reprisals,

‘”Before the training, I was just happy to use it and not go to jail,” said [REDACTED] …. “Now, I feel comfortable in my ability to use it and not go to jail. I used to always ask someone to look over my query before I submitted it. Now, my hand doesn’t need to be held.”

Our analysts have been building hashes for document tracking and rolling them into fingerprints. We have been getting documents in XKS that we were not getting in our PINWALE queries. Just today analysts found reportable material from the Tunisian Ministry of Interior that was not from any selectors we were targeting. Now we know what we can do with XKS and exactly why we want to use it — to make these discoveries.

These discoveries are igniting a trend of using XKS on a daily basis. “For daily pulls, analysts go through TransX, PINWALE, and now XKS to see what’s new for the day,” [REDACTED] said.’

Showing a callous glee for the highly unethical work being performed, it’s the next part that we find particularly shocking, as it shows how invasion of privacy is turned into a game,

Combine these exciting finds with the introduction of XKS Skilz points, and you can see why McDonald’s teamed up with Monopoly years ago: people buy more and even super size their orders just to get game pieces. With the brainchild of Skilz, where analysts can earn points and unlock achievements for performing tasks in XKS, people are willing to try new things within the tool. Analysts think to themselves, “Using the Pivot Data feature will earn 30 points… I’m going to try it and see what happens.” Discovery! Points! We have been lured by our geeky desire to unlock achievements and earn points, and bragging rights are everything.

“Definitely a number of users have gotten into the Skilz points. We have several people at level six. They see what they need to do to earn more points and start trying out different things,” said [REDACTED] In fact, ECC analysts now have the highest average of Skilz points compared to all of the S2 product lines and have written the most fingerprints per-capita! Some people say that the potent combination of Skilz points, the Circuit Training, and the team of easily-accessible, on-site instructors is the secret to ECC’s successes with XKS.

We suppose that it should come as no surprise that people willing to do such seedy work should take such enjoyment in it, or that ‘gamifying’ their tasks is a successful strategy or improving their motivation and, consequently, their results, but… sigh…

The full document is available here.

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