Surveillance questions snowball: 5 stories you may have missed

In the past week, media outlets published shocking new details based on documents from former U.S. security contractor Edward Snowden, while U.S. officials continued to struggle with fallout by publishing documents of their own. Here's a look at the top five mass surveillance stories from the past week.

From a new spy tool to heckling hackers

Gen. Keith Alexander, director of the National Security Agency, addressed the Black Hat hacker convention in Las Vegas last week. (Steve Marcus/Reuters)

As former U.S. security contractor Edward Snowden settles into a new, albeit temporary, home in Russia, he's left a storm of questions about mass surveillance in his wake.

Part of the famous fugitive's deal with Moscow is that he's not allowed to release information harmful to the United States during his one-year reprieve in the country, Russian President Vladimir Putin has said.

But before Snowden left the transit zone in Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport for a more hospitable location in Russia, he released a torrent of documents about the United States' use of mass surveillance — further stirring up a surveillance controversy he ignited in early June.

In the past week, media outlets published shocking new details based on the documents from Snowden, while U.S. officials continued to struggle with the fallout by publishing documents of their own.

Here's a look at the top five mass surveillance stories from the past few days.

U.S. doles out money to U.K. spy agency

How close is too close? The Guardian revealed on Thursday that in the past three years, the U.S. National Security Agency paid at least £100 million — about $157 million Canadian — to its United Kingdom counterpart.

The payments raise fears about the grip that Washington may hold on the U.K. intelligence agency, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ). Documents suggest the NSA felt that the GCHQ "remains short of the full NSA ask" and the GCHQ worried that "it must pull its weight."

In the documents, the U.K. intelligence agency also brags that it supplied "unique contributions" to the U.S. investigation into an American who attempted a car bomb attack in New York City's Times Square in 2010.

Surveillance tool collects 'nearly everything'

In June, Snowden made a bold statement to the Guardian. He said that while sitting at his desk, he could "wiretap anyone, from you or your accountant, to a federal judge or even the president, if I had a personal email."

Now, the Guardian says they have the documents that triggered Snowden's statement. On Wednesday, they released leaked files from Snowden that reveal the existence of a top-secret NSA program called XKeyscore.

The program gives analysts the ability to sift through vast databases that contain emails, online chats and browsing histories of millions of people. Users don't appear to require a warrant or authorization to use the program. Snowden said he used it during his time as a Booz Allen contract working at the NSA.

The first revelations based on documents provided by former security contractor Edward Snowden came out in June. (Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras/The Guardian/Associated Press)

Documents tout it as the "widest reaching" system for developing intelligence from computer networks, and say it covers "nearly everything a typical user does on the internet" from content of emails and websites visited to searches. A 2008 document brags that intelligence captured by XKeyscore had helped capture 300 terrorists.

The Guardian describes the quantity of communications accessible via XKeyscore and other such programs as "staggeringly large," with one 2007 NSA report estimating about up to two billion records are added every day to NSA databases that already contain more than one trillion records.

Some telecommunications experts compared the program to efforts by private companies to collect "big data" to better understand customer habits. But the news also spurred renewed calls for transparency about how much personal information is being collected and by whom.

NSA director faces heckling hackers

Meanwhile, the U.S. government is still struggling to counter public backlash after the first round of revelations by Snowden in early June.

At the Black Hat conference — an annual get-together of hackers and security experts in Las Vegas — NSA director Gen. Keith Alexander used his keynote speech to defend the government's collection of phone and internet records.

Hecklers interrupted the four-star general's speech, calling him a liar and telling him to read the constitution. But Alexander largely held his own and appeared to get a favourable reception in the end after jousting with the hecklers.

The director of the intelligence agency also revealed a few new details during the speech in an attempt to assuage public concern. He said that only 35 analysts at NSA are authorized to query a database of U.S. phone records.

Alexander also said that NSA's collection of phone call metadata and internet records of foreigners has resulted in the disruption of 54 terrorist activities, including 13 in the United States. Of those disrupted activities, 42 — more than three-quarters — were terrorist plots.

Back in Washington, lawmakers were skeptical of the number. Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Democrat who chairs the Senate judiciary committee said, "Not by any stretch can you get 54 terrorist plots."

NSA counters with its own document dump

New surveillance revelations kept Washington politicians busy during the past week. There was word Thursday that U.S. President Barack Obama convened a meeting with members of Congress. And on Wednesday, a judiciary committee hearing discussed the bulk collection of phone and internet records.

Shortly before the judiciary committee got underway, the Obama administration released three documents about record collection that it had declassified from top secret, part of its effort to placate opposition.

The documents are an April 2013 secret court order and two briefing papers for Congress from 2009 and 2011. Among the findings in them:

  • The court order says the government can only access phone records when there is a "reasonable" suspicion that the number is associated with terrorism.
  • Phone and internet metadata programs violated court orders in 2009 due to both "technical compliance" and "human implementation" errors. Those issues were later fixed, documents say.
  • There's a computer-run program that sifts through phone records using certain approved terms and then dumps that information into a "corporate store."

Civil liberties advocates said the documents reveal a broader collection of records than previously thought.

When bulk records turn into evidence

If document releases from both sides weren't enough, a court case also provided news on the hot topic.

It came out in a terrorism prosecution involving two Pakistan-born brothers living in Florida who are accused of a plot to bomb sites in New York in 2012.

A Miami federal court filing in the case revealed a change of course for the U.S. The justice department acknowledged the need during a terrorism prosecution to tell defendants that bulk record surveillance was used to build the case against them.

That acknowledgement may provide citizens and privacy advocates with the nugget of information they need to challenge NSA surveillance. For years, cases challenging the laws failed because there was no proof an individual had been prosecuted using these mass surveillance techniques.