Government surveillance has been a hot-button issue in America for the past few years, and for good reason. Not only does NSA spying affect tech giants, international communities, and world leaders, but it affects almost every single run-of-the-mill citizen as well.
Including, probably, you.
How, you ask?
The NSA spies on your phone calls and text messages
The NSA’s metadata collection of domestic phone records, otherwise known as the Patriot Act, is its claim to fame, being one of the first major revelations brought to light by Glenn Greenwald and the Guardian.
The American public was floored by the news that every day, without authorization, the NSA was collecting billions of text messages, device locations, and call information such as the identification of both callers and recipients—primarily not that of intended targets, but of innocent Americans whose data was swept up in the search.
Many people think that, three years on, the NSA had put an end to its bulk collection of telephone records.
It has not.
While the controversial section 215 of the Patriot Act was retired on June 1, 2015—being swapped out for an amended version dubbed the USA Freedom Act on June 2—its replacement is riddled with legal loopholes that allow it to workaround the new laws and continue to snoop on Americans en masse, should they wish to do so.
And you know they do.
The NSA spies on your emails, chat, and web browsing history
Shortly after revealing the existence of the Patriot Act, Greenwald introduced the world to XKEYSCORE, an NSA tool that collects the data of almost everything that a user does on the internet.
IP addresses, emails, browsing histories, browser cookies, online chats, voice calls, pictures, Skype sessions, username and password pairs, social media activity, logged keystrokes… all that and more is collected in the far-reaching NSA internet surveillance program, whose 700+ servers worldwide collect 20+ terabytes of data per day.
Like the Patriot Act, XKEYSCORE is “intended” to track foreign targets. However, when an American communicates with someone in a different country, they are labeled in the database as participating in foreign-to-foreign communication, and can have their personal online data searched sans warrant.
NSA spying can identify your friends, family, and social networks
Using the data collected from the aforementioned Patriot Act and XKEYSCORE programs, the NSA can easily put together sophisticated graphs of Americans’ social circle, including the identification of their associates and colleagues, their travelling companions, their locations, and other highly private details.
In order to build these graphs, the NSA harvests information from things such as bank codes, Facebook profiles, passenger logs, medical insurance information, voter registration rolls, GPS location data, and tax and property records.
They can even build social network profiles simply using queries such as “travelsWith, hasFather, sentForumMessage, employs” when scouring their databases.
While the focus is, again, on foreign targets, there is no limit to the number of innocent Americans who’ve ended up in the contact chain of a person or organization of interest.
The NSA monitors your financial transactions and credit card purchases
Phone and internet providers are not the only organizations in cahoots with the NSA. In addition to your phone records and web usage, your bank accounts and credit cards are also easily monitored and accessed without warrant.
A branch of the NSA called Follow the Money (FTM) collects information from the transaction networks of more than 25,000 financial firms, including banks, casinos, and wire transfer agencies. It then stores this information in a NSA databank dubbed Tracfin, which houses millions of records.
Approximately 84% of that data is estimated to be from credit card transactions.
VISA claims that they are “not aware of any unauthorized access to [their] network” and that they “only provide transaction information in response to a subpoena or other valid legal process”, but NSA presentations leaked by Snowden strongly suggest otherwise.
In fact, the NSA’s hoarding of financial information oversteps so many boundaries that even their British counterpart and frequent collaborator, the GCHQ, is concerned about the act, admitting that much of the “rich personal information” collected “is not about [their] targets”.
The NSA can access your personal webcam
While it is unconfirmed if the NSA conducts such practices itself (though it seems highly likely), they do have access to the webcam images available in the databases of its partner-in-surveillance, the GCHQ, who are known snoopers of Yahoo’s computer cameras.
Codenamed Optic Nerve, the program began in 2008 and is reported to have still been active in 2012. While it’s uncertain if it is still in operation, what they managed to collect in that time period is worrying enough, with over 1.8 billion webcam images of Yahoo customers worldwide collected in one six month period alone.
Optic Nerve was originally intended to be used for experiments in automated facial recognition, to monitor existing targets, and to discover new ones. Instead, they saved one image every five minutes from feeds—between 3% and 11% of which were sexually explicit images of innocent users.
The kicker? You only had to have a username similar to a known target to become a new target, and there is no UK law that removes domestic citizens or citizens from countries that are part of the Five Eyes alliance—which includes the US—from its search queries and databases.
The NSA monitors communication between online gamers
Should it come as any surprise that not even harmless online pastimes like MMORPGs are safe from the prying eyes of the NSA?
The answer is no, it shouldn’t.
Believing that terrorist networks could use the online games to communicate in secret, the NSA conducts surveillance and collects the data of millions of users around the world from virtual game servers, including user location, identity and activity such as voice and text chat logs.
So, yes, your time spent playing World of Warcraft, Second Life, Xbox Live, and the like is stored and logged by the NSA. Heck, that cute elf you’ve been talking to might even be an NSA agent.