In 2018, we are already five years ahead from the Snowden revelations that shook up the US government and showed the whole world that there’s no such thing as privacy, especially when it comes to online communications.
For some time it looked that the storm has passed, and yet – a report, issued by the top US intelligence officer Dan Coats, shows that the surveillance situation in the US is still intense. Apparently, the US National Security Agency (NSA) collected more than 151 million Americans’ phone call records last year, even after Congress had limited its ability to gather bulk phone records.
Having this in mind, it would be naive to believe that government surveillance is no longer worth to worry about. So in this article, we will take a closer look at the NSA intentions and measures to spy on you – whether you live in the US or anywhere else in the world.
The NSA (National Security Agency) is one of the largest US intelligent organizations, tasked with global monitoring and surveillance since 1952. Decades before the internet, the agency was collecting and deciphering telegraph records for foreign intelligence and counterintelligence purposes.
Shortly after the September 11th attacks (2001), President Bush authorized the NSA to conduct warrantless surveillance activities not only on foreign visitors but also the US citizens. The “President’s Surveillance Program,” or simply “The Program,” allowed the agency to monitor both international and domestic internet communications, listen to phone calls as well as secretly scan email messages with no legal authorization or court approval.
The US domestic surveillance program continues through to these days, even though the legal environment has changed a bit since 2001. One of the most significant steps towards improving privacy protection for the public was the passage of the 2015 USA Freedom Act, which limited bulk collection of telephone metadata to include only those who are suspected to have terrorist ties.
These changes would sound promising if not the potential reauthorization of Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). Under this section, intelligence agencies are allowed to require internet service providers (ISPs), telephone providers and tech companies (e.g., Facebook, Google, Apple, Microsoft) to collaborate in collecting information about targeted individuals.
Although Section 702 allows the NSA to spy only on people who live outside the US, it is impossible to ensure American communications are not caught up in the surveillance dragnet. Here’s how it may happen and why you should worry about.
1. You can be spied on with no reason
The NSA’s Upstream program allows scanning data flows for certain selectors associated with individuals that NSA is tasked to track, including target’s name, email address, IP addresses, etc. However, the NSA claims that selectors for this surveillance have to be more specific that merely the names of targets. That is, nobody will be interested in your discussion about Angela Merkel as long as you do not mention her email address or other information that may catch the NSA attention.
2. They can “follow” you on Facebook
As mentioned before, the NSA cooperates with large tech companies such as Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft to intercept and store all messaging data going to or from foreign targets. So if you message your foreign friend, there is a high chance your communication may be spied on, just because it is international.
3. Once acquired, your data is no longer private
If one email in your inbox matches any of the NSA’s targeting selectors, your entire inbox flow may end up in the NSA databases. What is more, other law enforcement institutions, such as the FBI, can also access those databases without a warrant, for example, to search for possible evidence of domestic crimes.
4. Your data can be hacked
All the information collected by the NSA eventually ends up in large databases, including target’s phone numbers, addresses and other identifying information. Needless to say that such amounts of sensitive data are a huge piece of pie for hackers.
5. Laws are made to be broken
According to the recent report, the NSA could be using “traffic shaping” techniques to redirect local internet traffic, including emails and messages, sent by American citizens, overseas. This way they could access all the information they need, which would be illegal if conducted inside the US. Given the obscure nature of the NSA, it is not surprising they have methods to bypass any restrictions.
For those who are concerned about their privacy and wish to stay on the safe side, using a reliable VPN service in the US is highly recommended. Even though it won’t protect users from all possible NSA spying methods, NordVPN will keep your online communications private and safe from the eyes of ISPs by hiding and replacing your IP address.