NSA justifies hacking world's digital communications

It's not spying, it's an attempt to 'understand online communication tools'


The NSA has published a statement explaining why US spies have been studying, infiltrating, and subverting so many of the digital technologies upon which people depend.

The statement, "Why the Intelligence Community Seeks to Understand Online Communication Tools & Technologies", was published by the US Office of the Director of National Intelligence on Friday, shortly after news broke that the NSA has spent years trying to crack the anonymous Tor communications network.

"The articles fail to make clear that the Intelligence Community's interest in online anonymity services and other online communication and networking tools is based on the undeniable fact that these are the tools our adversaries use to communicate and coordinate attacks against the United States and our allies," the NSA wrote.

Though Tor is undoubtedly used by many people for many different purposes, we would note that Osama Bin Laden, the architect of the September 11 2001 World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, lived his final years in a compound with no internet connection whatsoever and studiously avoided all internet and carrier-based communications, depending instead on people.

The statement goes on to note that "the Intelligence Community is only interested in communication related to valid foreign intelligence and counterintelligence purposes and that we operate within a strict legal framework that prohibits accessing information related to the innocent online activities of US citizens."

Recent revelations around the NSA's spying systems have shown that the agency spent two years indulging in the bulk collection of mobile phone locations at home and abroad without oversight. Another leak described how its "Project Marina" scheme indiscriminately slurped metadata on internet users – both European and American – and stores that data for a year allowing it to be looked at "regardless whether or not it was tasked for collection."

"In the modern telecommunications era," the NSA writes, "our adversaries have the ability to hide their messages and discussions among those of innocent people around the world. They use the very same social networking sites, encryption tools and other security features that protect our daily online activities."

This appears to be a subtle justification for the NSA graphing connections between people both at home and abroad, such as its scheme to analyse people through the traces they leave on social networks.

"Americans depend on the Intelligence Community to know who and what the threats are, and where they come from," the notoriously press-shy agency said.

"Many of the recent articles based on leaked classified documents have painted an inaccurate and misleading picture of the Intelligence Community," the mercurial surveillance agency noted. "The reality is that the men and women at the National Security Agency and across the Intelligence Community are abiding by the law, respecting the rights of citizens and doing everything they can to help keep our nation safe."

Documents declassified by the NSA in September show that between May 24, 2006, and February 17, 2009, the organization was monitoring 17,835 phone accounts, barely 2,000 of which had "reasonable articulable suspicion" of wrongdoing.

A recent statement from NSA inspector general Dr. George Ellard disclosed that some spies "intentionally misused" the NSA's signals intelligence techniques to spy on their lovers and partners without oversight. ®

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