What Does The NSA Know About You?

Category: Privacy

All the talk about NSA spying makes people nervous. You may be wondering, 'What does the NSA really know about me?' The spy agency isn’t telling, of course. But we can look at what's know, what's possible and infer the extent of any dossier the NSA may or may not have on little old you...

NSA Spying - What We Know and Don't Know

Let's start with email and phone. The NSA has not been reading everyone’s email, or listening to every phone conversation. There are not enough human eyes and ears in the world for that, even if everyone (except you, of course) was on the NSA’s payroll.

It's doubtful that there's even enough storage and compute capability to stash every email and voice communication, then search them on demand.

What we do know is that the NSA has been collecting email “metadata” – information about who has been communicating with who, dates and times of communications, and the locations of the communicators. Remember, the NSA is authorized by law to spy only on foreign activities. There's been some chatter that if you email anyone outside the U.S., that may qualify as you as participating in "foreign activities." We just don't know the truth or possible extent of that.

NSA Spying Programs

To see what the NSA might infer from the metadata of your email, try M.I.T.’s “Immersion” Web app (https://immersion.media.mit.edu/) Immersion builds a diagram of your email network and activity. With circles of various sizes connected by lines, it shows you visually and numerically the person(s) with whom you have exchanged email most often. Immersion works only with Google Mail, Yahoo! Mail, or Microsoft Exchange email accounts. You will have to authorize Immersion to access your email, but after viewing the results you can control whether the information is saved on Immersion’s server or deleted forever. If you trust M.I.T more than the government, give it a whirl!

Likewise, the NSA does not record every phone call, let alone have live human beings listen to every call. What the NSA has done is demand phone companies’ records of what numbers called each other; how long they were connected; and perhaps the approximate locations of the phones to which the numbers were assigned. Courts have rules that these records are not protected by the 4th Amendment because they are not your property; they are business records that belong to the phone companies and which may be subpoenaed just like any other accounting records.

The problem that privacy advocates see here is that the spy agency is requesting ALL phone records, not just the records of suspected criminals. NSA promises that they would never misuse this information, but there are credible reports that NSA staffers with access to this information did use it to spy on spouses and ex-lovers.

What About Google, Yahoo and SSL?

The NSA has not “infiltrated” the data centers of Google or Yahoo to obtain users’ emails, documents, multimedia collections, etc., as too many rumors have said. The NSA has tapped the communication links that transmit data into and out of those data centers. The practical difference is negligible; the NSA does end up with staggering amounts of data that is stored in the data centers. But the agency claims that it discards captured data that does not concern “foreign intelligence targets,” just as a cod fishing boat discards any fish that are not cod. The NSA’s claim makes sense because, as I keep emphasizing, there simply isn’t enough manpower to study every YouTube video, email, and so on.

Yes, the NSA can probably crack the 1024-bit encryption used by security protocols HTTPS and SSL to scramble data as it whizzes across the Internet. But it requires lots of time and computing power to decrypt any given message. And as far as we know, the state of the art doesn't yet permit this to happen on a massive scale. Whether the agency has done so and what harm has resulted is unanswered. If it brings you any comfort, most secure online communications will soon be using 2048-bit encryption, which is supposed to take about 4 billion times longer to crack.

Yes, the NSA can intercept Windows crash reports on their way to Microsoft’s headquarters. Such reports can indicate vulnerabilities in the reporting machine and enable intrusion into the machine. It would be very surprising if such reports were protected by super-strong encryption; I don’t see how that would earn Microsoft a dime. The NSA studies only crash reports of specific Windows computers in which it has a significant mission interest: “foreign intelligence targets.” If you’re not one of those, the NSA is unaware of why your computer crashed.

Is Your Smartphone or Computer Vulnerable to Snooping?

Another distorted report is, “The NSA has backdoor access to the iPhone and many software programs.” The truth is that we don’t know if such back doors exist or not. All we know is that the agency worked on developing software that would open a secret passageway into the iPhone way back in 2008, a year after the iPhone debuted. Whether the work was successful is unknown. Apple strongly denies any such claims.

The NSA’s Office of Tailored Access Operations develops custom solutions to the problem of gaining access to specific computers; specifically, computers used by foreign operators. It has been reported that this operation has made it possible to install specialized spying hardware and/or software in computers that were shipped to suspected bad guys. It has nothing to do with hacking into your U.S. home or business computer, or wifi network.

In late December, 2013, news media published highly misleading reports that the NSA had “essentially” tapped undersea international data pipelines. The use of hedging words like “essentially” are a tip-off that someone is lying. Careful reading of reports from legitimate news media reveals that there is no evidence that the NSA intercepted any data carried by those undersea cables.

The leaked NSA documents upon which these reports and rumors are based reveal only that the NSA discovered vulnerabilities in the international data transmission system. This is no more surprising or alarming than security researchers discovering vulnerabilities in Windows; until it is shown that the NSA did something nefarious with its knowledge of such vulnerabilities, these stories remain in the realm of rumoe and speculation.

Is It Legal, and Should I Worry?

On January 17th, President Obama essentially gave the NSA the green light to continue all of its present activities, with the caveat that the NSA should not store the phone records they are granted permission to access. Some argue that all of these spying programs are essential to keeping Americans safe from terrorist threats. Others say that the government is going too far, and worry that the data could be used to target or harass citizens for reasons that have nothing to do with terrorism. It appears likely that some additional limits or safeguards will be placed on NSA by the courts or Congress.

I am not defending the NSA; I am defending the truth. The news media has been led (quite willingly) by people with their own ulterior motives to distort the truth and incite fear and panic among the population of the world. It’s time to cut the FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt) and stick to the facts.

The facts as far as I can tell say that the NSA is not reading your emails, nor are they listening to your phone calls. They do have the capability to discern who is calling who, when and where. But the courts have ruled that this is permissible, and that this data should only be used to target suspected criminals. My opinion is that if you frequently communicate with people in Kazakhstan and Yemen, you might need to be worried. Otherwise, keep calm and carry on.

Your thoughts are welcome on this topic. Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "What Does The NSA Know About You?"

(See all 23 comments for this article.)

Posted by:

David B.
21 Jan 2014


During a recent investigation into an IP address anomaly, I happened upon this document:-


A most interesting read, which other folk may like to share!


Posted by:

Robert Bailey
21 Jan 2014

I agree with you. If anyone has anything to hide, then maybe they should be worried about NSA, but if they aren't trying to hide anything, then why should they worry about what NSA does. I think we need NSA, CIA, and FBI to do their job to keep us safe from all sorts of "bad guys" and "bad girls" around the globe.

Posted by:

Charles Eldredge
21 Jan 2014

I have no doubt that they are not interested in most of everyone's every day baloney. But that doesn't mean I want to leave them with the ability to run roughshod over my constitutional rights should they decide to go after any citizen. Our privacy should be protected. The same privacy afforded landline telephones not that many years ago should govern all communications.

Posted by:

Dr.Joseph Birnbaum
21 Jan 2014

I agree totally and well said Bob!

Posted by:

Bill Neeland
21 Jan 2014

Everyone seems to look at this issue from their one narrow perspective. Why would the NSA care about most peoples rambling message's anyway? After all, they're the good guys.
What if you're a Google in negotiations with another organization about it's acquisition. Would any of the NSA people be tempted in placing a stock bet on that transaction? Oh that's right, I forgot they're the good guys.

Posted by:

Arnold Christensen
21 Jan 2014

You have not had any privacy ever since you had to tell everyone what your SSN is to pay on time have a phone etc, etc. Unless you are doing something wrong you do not have to worry. NSA has known me ever since I got a security clearance back in the 60's when I was in the Army. There is way too much BS on the internet to be worried that someone may keep my phone or internet records. If you wear a rag on your head you should be careful.

Posted by:

21 Jan 2014

There is evidence that emails-at least international ones coming into the US-are being scanned for key words.

Those who would trade liberty for security will end up with neither.

The sheeple will lay back and say, "The nice folks at the NSA wouldn't do anything bad with my data." They should look at what J. Edgar Hoover did.

Posted by:

21 Jan 2014

I think you're missing the point. It's giving the government the chance to do away with our protections under the Constitution. And when they succeed with that, what do you think the chances are you'd be able to get them back. I'm afraid when the Justice Dept descends on UPI and removes their phone records without search warrants and there's nearly no protest from most news agencies. I'm afraid when a professor fights for over 8 years with legal costs exceeding $3 million to get removed from the govt no fly list that she was mistakenly put on. I'm afraid of the govt's secret courts and judges that you can't find out anything about any of the cases. Too many of our service men have died and been wounded to preserve our rights and I'm afraid when I see them slipping away.

Posted by:

Barry D
21 Jan 2014

Found this - it may be of some interest to some of you.


Posted by:

21 Jan 2014

Thanks for the information, Bob. Although at first the idea of this bothered me, if it saves one life, I hope they continue to do it. Law Enforcement has gotten pen registers allowing them to track phone numbers called since there were phones. Then they got eavesdropping warrants allowing them to listen in on telephone calls. If you're worried about your privacy being protected, give up your citizenship and move somewhere that will protect it more.

Posted by:

21 Jan 2014

Bob, you are a really smart guy & I look forward to your newsletter as info from an expert in his field. However, this article has moved beyond your realm of expertise and as such I consider nothing more than personal opinion (and therefore no smarter than my own). May I suggest another newsletter that I receive monthly from an acknowledged expert in his field, Bruce Schneier. https://www.schneier.com Mr. Scheier uses logic and "fact" more than most, and any person with an open mind and not prejudiced by political or social/peer pressure, will find his articles most interesting.I trust that you will consider his opinions as closer to the "truth" than most.

Posted by:

21 Jan 2014

RichF - Very well stated.

All I can tell you is this: Those NSA cats don't even wanna THINK about spying on me! Why? Because they'd risk making me angry. They wouldn't like me when I'm angry!!!

Posted by:

Eric Williams
22 Jan 2014

The Preamble Secures blessings of Liberty to the People of the United States, NOT citizens.

Pay Attention To The Words ("PATW")

Citizenship upon birth would constitute involuntary servitude, prohibited by the Thirteenth Amendment; PATW

Citizenship is volunteered into by voluntary application for franchise to use government owned name on birth certificate in order to be issued a driver license; PATW.

No birth certificate can be connected to any specific person; why will government not issue DL without BC?; PATW.

The Fourteenth Amendment negates any application of Bill of Rights to Free People who volunteer themselves into citizenship; PATW.

The Fourteenth Amendment empowers President to do as he wishes to citizens who have volunteered themselves to be "subject to the jurisdiction thereof", without approval of Congress; PATW.

Citizens have no Second Amendment gun ownership protection; PATW.

I am Eric WhoRU, The Radical In The Twilight Zone

Note to Editor, in 1970 I was criminally charged by the IRS with willful failure to file or pay income tax. I went to Federal Court all by myself (no attorney). I walked out in less than five minutes and have never been bothered since by the IRS and have never filed or paid, all because the IRS or Court could not establish I had volunteered myself into citizenship. I was born in California in 1934. Pay attention to the words! You can print this note if you want, edited appropriately - or as is.

Posted by:

22 Jan 2014

Those who say "if you have nothing to hide..." are totally missing the point. Government is supposed to serve the people; today. this is reversed. I absolutely do not trust any government - it must be watched closely 24/7. People are people - if allowed, the scoundrel in them comes out.

If you have nothing to hide, will you let me come rummage through your home? I am honest and a pillar of the community and I won't take anything or tell anybody what you own. No? So why is it OK for bureaucrats to rummage though your (very) personal communications?

Sorry Bob, even though the news media have distorted what is really happening, the gubmint is out of control and the NSA is just one of its many tentacles. Hope your article doesn't cause your readers to go limp when it comes to protecting their rights.

Posted by:

22 Jan 2014

Bob ... Thank you, for some common sense thinking, in this paranoid world, we live in today. I am not worried and never have been, over this whole mess with the NSA. I personally think, for those who "protest" ... Thou protest, too much.

People are forgetting what is behind all of the NSA's "workings" ... Most have honestly, forgotten what truly happened on 9-11-2001 and the "scared feelings" of that day and time. In all honesty, this is how the human brain, protects itself ... allowing memories to 'fade', so it doesn't have to relive those moments, again and again.

The NSA is not looking at the common citizen or person ... But, they are looking at those who have connections to foreign or national individuals, who want to overthrow or harm, the United States of America, the US Government and the people who live here. "Spying" is still done, to this day and is one of the most effective methods, to provide the information needed, to prevent plots of terroristic attacks. Yes, I said, plots of terroristic attacks ... Because, that is what they are ... plans to do terroristic attacks, on USA soil.

Note to Eric Williams:

Next time, you choose to use the US Constitution, please be sure you know which Amendment, you are talking about and referring to. You may sound smart, but, in researching your "claims", they are "some truths to half-truths to no-truths."

Why am I saying this to you? Honestly, there are a LOT more experts on US Constitutional Law, than you and me, so don't presume to be all that knowledgeable and think that you can interpret the US Constitution better than the experts ... Who happen to "argue" the fine points, daily.

Posted by:

22 Jan 2014

Thank you. Mr. Rankin (and those who posted replies) for interesting perspectives.
Part of me can't blame NSA for data/information gathering.
Every job well done needs tools.
More the tools better the outcome.
Similarly, I just can't stop buying tools.
And similarly, NSA just can't have enough data/information.
During a speech to a group of reporters and analysts Monday night (Jan. 26, 1999) at an event to launch his company's new Jini technology. The chief executive officer Scott McNealy of Sun Microsystems said that consumer privacy issues are a "….. red herring." "You have zero privacy anyway," >>>>> "Get over it."

Posted by:

Jim Ebmeyer
22 Jan 2014

THANKS! This is exactly what I have said to others - there aren't enough people to read and/or listen to every communication. All of the hoopla is politically motivated and is BS.

EDITOR'S NOTE: I don't agree that the hoopla is politically motivated. There are plenty of voices -- Democrat, Republican and Libertarian -- who object to the NSA spying programs, and for reasons that are sound. I don't think anyone denies that there is the possibility for abuse.

Posted by:

23 Jan 2014


“The news media has been led (quite willingly) by people with their own ulterior motives to distort the truth and incite fear and panic among the population of the world.”

Consider two exemplary instances:

A. The NSA has been consistently tapping the mobile phone of the German Bundeskanzlerin.

B. The NSA rented an apartment opposite the apartment of the Israeli Minister of Defence to facilitate eavesdropping and spying.

Germany and Israel are not “Kazakhstan and Yemen”; both countries are close allies of the U.S.

Do you consider those exemplary instances “distortion of truth”?

I do not. Therefore, I am not willing to “keep calm and carry on” and neither should any decent person.

Posted by:

23 Jan 2014

I really believe if u r doing something to harm r hurt someone,they will b watching u and listening to u..and doing things illegal..u r on there list...we all need protection..

Posted by:

24 Jan 2014

US corporations have been doing many if not all the things that the NSA has, and for many years. We surrender our rights every time we click "I agree". Many of our government's actions are done to protect corporate property and profits. I can find out very intimate data on anybody else, and they can easily do the same to me. This is simply because we have voluntarily supplied our personal data over a period of time. None of us have any privacy, accept that fact and enjoy your life.

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