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What is XKeyscore, and can it 'eavesdrop on everyone, everywhere'? (+video)

XKeyscore is apparently a tool the NSA uses to sift through massive amounts of data. Critics say it allows the NSA to dip into people's 'most private thoughts' – a claim key lawmakers reject.

By Staff writer / August 1, 2013

This photo shows an aerial view of the NSA's Utah Data Center in Bluffdale, Utah. The long, squat buildings span 1.5 million square feet, and are filled with super-powered computers designed to store massive amounts of information gathered secretly from phone calls and e-mails.

Rick Bowmer/AP/File

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Top-secret documents leaked to The Guardian newspaper have set off a new round of debate over National Security Agency surveillance of electronic communications, with some cyber experts saying the trove reveals new and more dangerous means of digital snooping, while some members of Congress suggested that interpretation was incorrect.

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The NSA's collection of "metadata" – basic call logs of phone numbers, time of the call, and duration of calls – is now well-known, with the Senate holding a hearing on the subject this week. But the tools discussed in the new Guardian documents apparently go beyond mere collection, allowing the agency to sift through the haystack of digital global communications to find the needle of terrorist activity.

The concern is that the capabilities could be misused or misdirected at innocents. In revealing the NSA metadata program, leaker Edward Snowden told the Guardian in June: "I, sitting at my desk, could wiretap anyone, from you or your accountant, to a federal judge or even the president, if I had a personal e-mail."

Rep. Mike Rogers (R) of Michigan, chairman of the House intelligence committee, rejected that claim. “It's impossible for him to do what he was saying he could do."

But the new Guardian leak appears to indicate something at least close to such capability. The program, called XKeyscore, is the “widest-reaching” Internet surveillance system, according to one of several analyst “training” documents, which included a 32-slide presentation leaked to The Guardian. An analyst has to enter only an individual e-mail address – along with a “justification” inserted into another field on the screen – to get a trove of personal e-mail sorted by time period, say analysts who reviewed the slides for the Monitor.

The program can also apparently determine which computers visited a website and when, as well as searching chats, usernames, buddy lists, and cookies. One slide in an XKeyscore document features corporate logos of a number of familiar online social media companies, saying the program lets analysts see “nearly everything a typical user does on the Internet.”

Another slide illustrates how an analyst can use the program to search “within bodies of e-mail, WebPages and documents.” Analysts using XKeyscore can also use a NSA tool called DNI Presenter "to read the content of Facebook chats or private messages,” according to the Guardian article.

“What stands out about XKeyscore is the ease with which an NSA analyst can dip into people's lives, their most private thoughts,” says James Bamford, an NSA critic who has written several books detailing the agency’s inner workings.

In addition, the amount of information that XKeyscore searches and stores is massive. During a 30-day period in 2012, it collected and stored about 41 billion total records, one slide document asserts. That is a testament to the NSA’s growing capability to collect data, leading to the need for a huge new data storage facility in Bluffdale, Utah, which should begin operations this fall.

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