Report: NSA Can Access 75 Percent of All U.S. Internet Traffic

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Aug. 21 2013 2:39 PM

Report: NSA Can Access 75 Percent of All U.S. Internet Traffic

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Gen. Keith B. Alexander, director of the NSA, speaks at the International Conference on Cyber Security.

Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images

In recent weeks, the Obama administration has repeatedly insisted that NSA spy programs do not involve monitoring Americans’ phone calls and emails. But a new report has cast fresh doubt on the government’s claims—suggesting the NSA’s spying reaches deeper into U.S. Internet networks than previously disclosed.

The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday that the NSA has the capacity to sift through about 75 percent of all U.S. Internet traffic in the hunt for foreign intelligence. The agency, according to officials cited by the newspaper, has a dozen locations at major network junctions where it is able to filter traffic—in some cases collecting written content of emails sent between citizens within the United States. The WSJ reports that, in 2002, under the authority of President Bush, the content of all email and text communications in the Salt Lake City area for a six-month period around the time of the 2002 Winter Olympics.

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The WSJ also undermines Obama administration claims intended to calm fears about domestic surveillance. In June, the Guardian revealed that a bulk domestic traffic monitoring program had been operational under Obama’s presidency. But in June, Shawn Turner, the Obama administration's director of communications for National Intelligence, told the Guardian that the domestic Internet traffic snooping program was “discontinued by the executive branch as the result of an interagency review.” And the president himself said earlier this month on The Tonight Show that “we do not have a domestic spying program.”

The WSJ’s report raises serious questions about these statements, which appear to be flatly misleading. One omission in the WSJ scoop is that it portrays all Internet traffic as easy for the NSA to grab. However, traffic encrypted using the SSL protocol—which shows in the browser as HTTPS as opposed to unencrypted HTTP—may hinder the NSA’s ability to snoop on emails and other data, such as Google searches, as I have previously noted.

Either way, it is clear that there is still a great deal about the NSA’s capabilities that we are not being told. Last week, this was made starkly clear by Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore. and Mark Udall, D-Colo., after the Washington Post reported that the NSA had flouted privacy rules thousands of times. “We believe Americans should know that this confirmation is just the tip of a larger iceberg," said the politicians, who are both privy to secret details about NSA programs as members of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Ryan Gallagher is a journalist who reports on surveillance, security, and civil liberties.

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