NSA's Top Secret 'XKeyscore' Sweeps Up Online Activity

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Carol Hills: I'm Carol Hills in for Marco Werman and this "The World". The Obama Administration just can't seem to stay ahead of the NSA surveillance story. Today, the administration released previously-classified documents about the National Security Agency and how it collects data on all domestic phone calls in the US. But the release was upstaged by the publishing of yet another still-secret document leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. This one describes a top-secret NSA program called "XKeyscore" which reportedly allows the agency to snoop on virtually everything an user does on the internet. Meanwhile, Snowden remains holed-up inside the transit zone at a Moscow airport and his father gave an interview on Russian TV. Lon Snowden says he supports his son all the way.

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Lon Snowden: My son is a principle young man, he is a man of courage and what he saw he could not live with. It was a moral hazard. And I know that I raised him to do the right things. Sometimes the right thing means personal sacrificing, that�s what he did. So, absolutely, I am proud of my son.
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Hills: We're going to focus now on that top-secret program called "XKeyscore". James Bamford has written extensively about the National Security Agency. His latest book is "The Shadow Factory: The Ultra-Secret NSA from 9/11 to the Eavesdropping on America". James Bamford, walk us through the XKeyscore program. How does it work?

James Bamford: Well, basically what the XKeyscore program was, it was the internet equivalent of what the other programs were which were focused on telephone data and internet data. What XKeyscore focused on was suspicious connections to the internet and they had a whole menu of ways to look for suspicious connections, "Are you connecting to a website that had previously been used by al-Qaeda?" for example is a very blatant example, to the very mundane. If you happen to set up a VPN, a virtual private network, for example, businesses create these just to keep communications within business and so forth, well, anybody that created a VPN would have been a suspect or suspicious and then they would look into who this person is.

Hills: So should we assume at the National Security Agency there are certain people who have the XKeyscore program and they're randomly looking, or how are they sort of zeroing-in and deciding whose internet activity to monitor?

Bamford: I don't think this is one little group of people that are doing it. Everybody at NSA has this as one of their tools. So if you're focusing on Africa, if you're focusing on Asia, if you're focusing on the Middle East, this is one of the tools you can use to look for whatever targets you were looking for. So it's a very broad program and it's one of the tools in the toolbox of NSA analysts.

Hills: Is XKeyscore something you've known about for a while?

Bamford: XKeyscore, the first time was revealed was in an article in Der Spiegel Magazine in Germany about three weeks ago I think it was because it was being applied throughout Germany, at least through communications throughout Europe and so forth.

Hills: Show we assume that the NSA is using the XKeyscore program to monitor the activity of US citizens?

Bamford: Well, it's very unclear, and the problem is how do you tell who is on the internet if it's a US computer, if it's a foreign computer? There are technical ways that you can sometimes determine it, but it can't be applied a hundred percent of the time.

Hills: Now, NSA leaker Edward Snowden, still in the transit area of the airport in Moscow, he famously said in June, "Sitting at my desk I could wire anyone from you or your accountant to a federal judge, or even the President if I had a personal email." Now, that's kind of seems like he was telling the truth.

Bamford: What he was saying basically is that under the new system where they changed the rules for the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, every time you get a number or an address or an email address for somebody, even if it's an American, it could be approved internally within the NSA. So what he was saying was true. Somebody sitting at NSA could do that. There are supposed to be some checks on balances within the agency, but there is no third part oversight like a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court judge.

Hills: James Bamford's latest book is "The Shadow Factory: The Ultra-Secret NSA from 9/11 to the Eavesdropping on America". Thanks so much.

Bamford: My pleasure.