Building a panopticon: The evolution of the NSA’s XKeyscore

Like this prison in Cuba, the NSA has turned the Internet into a place where the watchmen can see all.

The National Security Agency’s (NSA) apparatus for spying on what passes over the Internet, phone lines, and airways has long been the stuff of legend, with the public catching only brief glimpses into its Leviathan nature. Thanks to the documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, we now have a much bigger picture.

When that picture is combined with federal contract data and other pieces of the public record—as well as information from other whistleblowers and investigators—it’s possible to deduce a great deal about what the NSA has built and what it can do.

We’ve already looked at the NSA’s basic capabilities of collecting, managing, and processing “big data.” But the recently released XKeyscore documents provide a much more complete picture of how the NSA feeds its big data monsters and how it gets “situational awareness” of what’s happening on the Internet. What follows is an analysis of how XKeyscore works and how the NSA’s network surveillance capabilities have evolved over the past decade.

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