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Top 10 Ways the NSA Spies On You

VO: Rebecca Brayton WRITTEN BY: Nick Roffey

Script written by Nick Roffey

Ever get the feeling you’re being watched? From building back doors, to hijacking your cellular devices and web cams, to straight up hacking, these are the scary methods used by the NSA to keep tabs on everyone. WatchMojo counts down ten ways the NSA spies on you.

Special thanks to our user ViolaCello for suggesting this idea! Check out the voting page at: https://www.WatchMojo.comsuggest/10+Ways+the+NSA+Spies+on+You.


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Script written by Nick Roffey

Top 10 Ways the NSA Spies On You

Ever get the feeling you’re being watched? Welcome to, and today we're counting down our picks for the top 10 ways the NSA spies on you.

For this list, we're looking at the NSA’s methods of surveillance over “you” in the generic sense of the word, including both “targeted individuals” and the general population at home and abroad.

#10: Building Backdoors

In 2016, Apple faced down the FBI over iPhone security. It wasn’t the first time US officials had pushed for the introduction of “backdoors” into communications devices. In 1993, the NSA promoted “clipper chips” that would allow them to monitor phone calls. The idea collapsed amid public resistance, so the NSA gave up . . . on that plan. According to documents disclosed by Edward Snowden, the agency spends over $250 million a year on influencing and collaborating with tech companies to make devices “exploitable”, and paid computer firm RSA $10 million to distribute compromised encryption tools - part of a larger push to weaken cyber-security.

#9: Straight Up Hacking

For some backdoors, the NSA uses their elite hacking unit, Tailored Access Operations. Created in 1997, the unit’s motto is: “Your data is our data, your equipment is our equipment.” Armed with a sophisticated attack suite called “QUANTUM”, they're one part James Bond, one part Bond villian. By diverting browsers to fake versions of real websites, QUANTUM tools can sneak malware into targeted computers. The unit has hacked into a range of targets, from Mexican President Felipe Calderón, to telecommunication and petroleum companies. They also implant surveillance tools inside routers made for export - enabling them to collect vast amounts of data around the world.

#8: Legal Loopholes

The NSA was created to collect foreign intelligence. But legal loopholes also allow them to eavesdrop on Americans. While they can only wiretap foreign targets outside the US without a warrant, conversations between foreign targets and Americans are fair game. They can also monitor Americans’ international communications for a week before requesting a warrant, and search databases for individual American communications. Worse, Snowden’s documents revealed that members of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance, which also includes Canada, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand, share data “incidentally” collected on each other’s citizens. After all - it’s not domestic surveillance if someone else is doing the spying.

#7: Your Purchases

Leaked documents reveal the NSA has obtained data from companies that include credit card giant VISA, and also SWIFT, a network that thousands of banks use to send secure information. The information is stored in a database called “Tracfin” by a branch appropriately called “Follow the Money”. In 2011 alone, it collected 180 million records, mostly purchases made with credit cards. The idea is to track the financial transactions of terrorist organizations, but even employees at British spy agency GCHQ, which often partners with the NSA, have worried about the bulk collection of “rich personal information” that’s not about terrorist targets.

#6: Geolocation

You know who always knows where you are? Your cellphone, tracking your movements using cell networks, WiFi, and GPS. In 2013, The Washington Post reported that the NSA uses this information to monitor the locations of hundreds of millions of cellphones around the world, collecting almost 5 billion records a day. Their analytic tools allow them to identify the travel habits and associates of targeted individuals. The agency sucks the information from mobile network cables into a massive database called FASCIA, “incidentally” sweeping up the records of an unknown number of Americans too.

#5: Text Messages

Think your texts are private? Don't be so sure. A 2011 NSA presentation boasted that their program DISHFIRE sweeps up close to two hundred million text messages a day. This includes a “large volume of unselected SMS traffic”, although communications from US numbers are “minimized”. Created by the NSA and shared with British spy agency GCHQ, the program allows agents to read messages and bulk collect information that includes geolocation, contacts, and financial transactions. The GCHQ has used it to see who British citizens are texting, which it doesn’t consider domestic surveillance, since the NSA owns the database.

#4: Your Built-in Cameras & Microphones

There’s a reason Mark Zuckerberg keeps tape over his webcam and Edward Snowden has visitors put their phones in the fridge. Using malware, hackers can take control of built-in cameras and microphones. NSA operatives use a plug-in called GUMFISH to access computer webcams, and a tool called CAPTIVATEDAUDIENCE to hijack microphones. Some smartphones are vulnerable too. Intelligence agencies can also intercept webcam traffic. As part of program Optic Nerve, the NSA assisted their British counterpart, GCHQ, in collecting millions of random images from Yahoo! webcam applications - reputedly capturing many thousands of users with their pants down. Literally.

#3: Someone's On the Phone . . .

The Patriot Act was intended to protect Americans. But in 2006, USA Today revealed the NSA had used their broad mandate to amass records of calls made by tens of millions of Americans. Almost a decade later, the Guardian newspaper exposed a court order demanding Verizon hand over information on all calls daily. The program was shut down, and in 2016 the NSA “only” collected 151 million records of American phone calls. And it's not just metadata. In 2011 a program called MYSTIC was able to record the phone calls of an entire country for a month, and the agency reports also having succeeded hacking into smartphones.

#2: Social Media & Communications Companies

Deleting your browser history doesn't mean it's gone. President George W. Bush also authorized the PRISM program, which obliges internet companies to hand over emails, photos, videos, and browsing histories that match certain search terms. For domestic targets, the NSA needs a warrant, but anyone else is fair game. The main participants are Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft, but also include Facebook, Skype, YouTube, Paltalk, AOL, and Apple. In one six month period, Facebook turned over communications involving almost 20,000 accounts. The companies have little choice. Yahoo claims the government threatened to fine it $250,000 a day for withholding data, and companies are subject to gag orders that prevent disclosures.

#1: Surveilling Internet Usage

The NSA has a number of roundabout ways of accessing data. But by employing upstream collection, it can also suck the data straight out. They make deals with cable companies, or even use submarines to reach the cables. A program called “xkeyscore” allows analysts to search and track “nearly everything a user does on the internet”. The practice caused a scandal in 2006 when a whistleblower exposed AT&T's installation of a splitter to pass on data straight to the NSA. It’s also how the agency broke into the communication links between Yahoo and Google data centers, making off with billions of records.

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