The Hand-Drawn Smiley Face That Has Google Furious at the NSA

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Oct. 30 2013 3:46 PM

To Celebrate Spying on Google Users, the NSA Drew a Smiley Face

NSA smiley face sketch
This apparent NSA presentation slide, provided to the Washington Post by Edward Snowden, speaks volumes about the agency's attitude toward mass surveillance.

Image via theWashington Post

It’s safe to assume that Google, Yahoo, and other major Internet companies were not thrilled when the NSA began demanding that they hand over users’ data as part of the court-approved PRISM spying program.

Will Oremus Will Oremus

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.

But that was nothing compared to how they must be feeling now.

Advertisement

The Washington Post reports today that at the same time the NSA was requisitioning data from Google and Yahoo via PRISM, it was secretly intercepting far greater quantities of data behind their backs. In that project, known as MUSCULAR, the NSA allegedly somehow tapped into the fiber-optic links that connect Google and Yahoo’s data centers around the world. That allowed it to suck up absolutely massive amounts of information on foreigners and citizens alike, which it could then analyze at its leisure.

Tech companies’ responses to the PRISM revelations were almost uniformly measured and legalistic. But Google’s statement about MUSCULAR makes it clear the company is really steamed about this one. Google told the Post it is “troubled by allegations of the government intercepting traffic between our data centers, and we are not aware of this activity.”

NSA chief Keith Alexander was quick to dispute the report, or at least try to cast some doubt on it. It's conceivable that the Post has its facts wrong in some way or another. But given all that has come out so far, including intelligence officials' track record of forgetting key facts when confronted with awkward questions, it seems plausible that there's some truth to the allegations.

If so, among all the troubling facets of the story, one little hand-drawn image may end up as an enduring emblem of the NSA’s wanton disregard for digital privacy. In a presentation slide provided to the Post by leaker Edward Snowden, someone at the NSA apparently sketched a diagram showing the exact point at which it broke into Google’s cloud. And there they drew a little smiley face.

From the Post:

Two engineers with close ties to Google exploded in profanity when they saw the drawing. “I hope you publish this,” one of them said.

The Post did. In fact, it ran the sketch as the main image atop the Web version of its story. 

The smiley face might seem like a harmless quirk, but it’s more than that. It’s an indication that the NSA's agents did not regret having to break into major American corporations’ systems and steal their data. They relished it.

More broadly, it suggests that—contrary to what its leaders would have the public believe—the NSA’s agents did not undertake spying on untold millions of people around the world, including U.S. citizens, as a grave matter, unfortunate but necessary. It suggests they took it lightly—they thought it was funny.

Read the Washington Post's full report here.

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

TODAY IN SLATE

Technocracy

Forget Oculus Rift

This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual reality experience.

The Congressional Republican Digging Through Scientists’ Grant Proposals

The 2014 Kansas City Royals Show the Value of Building a Mediocre Baseball Team

The GOP Won’t Win Any Black Votes With Its New “Willie Horton” Ad

Whole Foods Is Desperate for Customers to Feel Warm and Fuzzy Again

The XX Factor

I’m 25. I Have $250.03.

My doctors want me to freeze my eggs.

The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I’m 25. I Have $250.03. My doctors want me to freeze my eggs.
Politics

Smash and Grab

Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?

I Am 25. I Don’t Work at Facebook. My Doctors Want Me to Freeze My Eggs.

These Companies in Japan Are More Than 1,000 Years Old

  News & Politics
The World
Oct. 21 2014 11:40 AM The U.S. Has Spent $7 Billion Fighting the War on Drugs in Afghanistan. It Hasn’t Worked. 
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 21 2014 1:12 PM The Global Millionaires Club Is Booming and Losing Its Exclusivity
  Life
The Vault
Oct. 21 2014 2:23 PM A Data-Packed Map of American Immigration in 1903
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 21 2014 1:12 PM George Tiller’s Murderer Threatens Another Abortion Provider, Claims Right of Free Speech
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 21 2014 1:02 PM Where Are Slate Plus Members From? This Weird Cartogram Explains. A weird-looking cartogram of Slate Plus memberships by state.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 21 2014 1:47 PM The Best Way to Fry an Egg
  Technology
Technology
Oct. 21 2014 10:43 AM Social Networking Didn’t Start at Harvard It really began at a girls’ reform school.
  Health & Science
Climate Desk
Oct. 21 2014 11:53 AM Taking Research for Granted Texas Republican Lamar Smith continues his crusade against independence in science.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.