The NSA Is The Modern Stasi Evidence Of US Security State

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Signal Interference

‘The Stasi had a file on everybody’ was once a common trope used to favourably compare the ‘free’ West to oppressive Soviet societies. It has since become an emblem of the threat to privacy that an overreaching security state will embody. When Edward Snowden exposed the surveillance apparatus maintained by the US and its partners, it made the Stasi look like rank amateurs. East German spies had only managed to fill filing cabinets in one small office building in Berlin. The amount of floorspace required to hold the NSA data (if stored in like-for-like printed files) would cover mainland Europe.

News cycles obscure history, creating isolated media ‘events’ from which our reactions can be guided for carefully designated periods of time. The most advanced and, let’s remember, ongoing system of surveillance in history becomes forgotten, only to be referenced in an occasional throwaway final sentence whenever an article about US relations is published.

The proliferation of surveillance has operated in tandem with technological development. In 1945, Project SHAMROCK was developed, collecting all data which was entering or leaving the US via telegraph. Major communication companies actively aided the project. Between 1967-73 Project MINARET spied on US citizens; many protesting the Vietnam War were placed on a ‘watch list’ at the US Army’s request. In 1988, Project ECHELON, a signals intelligence project which intercepted satellite telecommunications on a huge scale, became public knowledge. Today’s intricate web of intelligence gathering involves many overlapping pieces of software and hardware, operated by numerous state intelligence services.

The latest revelations were, to put it very mildly, complicated and would require far more space to unpack than is available in a single article. What follows is a very brief breakdown of some of the most important operations run by various intelligence organisations. There are many, many more databases, applications, algorithms and instruments which are not described here (Boundless Informant, XKeyscore and Stellar Wind to name but a few).


PRISM is a vast data-mining program the NSA use to search email and internet traffic data for “foreign intelligence purposes’’. It could not function without the compliance of various tech companies. Documents released by Snowden show participants in PRISM include Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, AOL and Apple. PRISM appears primarily to be used to build a comprehensive digital ‘picture’ of a person of interest. It is not known exactly what kind of data is included in this database, but it is alleged that the NSA has real-time access to e-mail, chat services, videos, photos, stored data, and file transfers from companies who collaborate with them. Put simply, the NSA has the capability to surveil all foreign online communications.

Subsequent disclosures highlighted that organisations such as GCHQ also undertook mass interception and tracking of internet and communications data.


Run by the UK’s GCHQ, TEMPORA uses two principal components: “Mastering the Internet” and “Global Telecoms Exploitation”. The aim is to collate online and telephone traffic. The data is acquired by physically ‘tapping’ transatlantic fibre-optic cables. The signals were intercepted under secret agreements with major telecommunications companies including BT and Vodafone, who now face legal action. It is also alleged that some companies have been paid for their co-operation. Extracted data is preserved for three days whilst metadata (put simply, data about data i.e. if the data is a photograph, the metadata would include the time and location it was taken and the camera settings used and so on) is kept for 30 days.

Once extracted at the intercept point, data is processed using search algorithms which highlight material conforming to purposes authorised by warrants. Promising results are logged for further examination. Data gathered from random individuals is treated exactly the same as that gathered from targeted suspects. It is claimed that TEMPORA utilises actual data including recorded telephone calls, the content of emails, Facebook postings and internet user’s browsing history (in defending certain techniques the US government highlighted that their surveillance only logs metadata.) It is impossible to know the total number of those targeted by TEMPORA.

Companies aiding GCHQ are forbidden from revealing warrants that compel them to allow access to cables. By the end of 2011, GCHQ had probes attached to more than 200 internet links, each of which was capable of carrying 10 gigabits of data a second – the equivalent of gathering the whole of Wikipedia every four seconds on each link.


MAINWAY is an NSA database which stores the metadata of hundreds of billions of phone calls. The database records a variety of data on each phone call: caller, receiver, date/time/length of call, location of the phone during the call and other ‘identifying information’. The calls themselves are not recorded, but vast amounts of behaviour and private information can be gleaned from examining the database.


BULLRUN is a decryption program run by the NSA (Edgehill is GCHQ’s equivalent) which pulls data from various sensitive sources. The program is able to penetrate various online protocols, including HTTPS, voice-over-IP and Secure Sockets Layer (SSL). These protocols are fundamental to the security of online banking, shopping and secure communication online.

When brute force attacks to breach secured communications fail, intelligence agencies collaborate with technology companies and ISPs to include vulnerabilities into encryption software allowing access to encrypted channels through what are known as ‘backdoors’ or ‘trapdoors’.

The documents leaked by Edward Snowden reveal a clear picture of total surveillance in an intangible global empire of surveillance and ‘security’. This is no clandestine organisation ‘gone rogue’, nor the kind of abuses of power that happen within the outer reaches of a bloated state. The surveillance mechanisms are front and centre in a political order which justified and built all the legal instruments they required to allow the networked society to be tapped, stored and analysed. The spectre of ‘national security’ is wheeled out, where the ‘protection of citizens’ is instrumentalised to mask the state’s desire to protect its own power. Our search for justice will not be found in the same courts which granted permission for the largest invasion of privacy that the ‘free democracies’ of the world have ever seen.

The reaction from the surveilled has been, at best, muted. Due to the often abstract nature of social relationships in a networked society, it can be harder to place a value judgement on the many social interactions we now share. The intrusion has been almost total but for a variety of reasons the reaction has been anything but. Perhaps it’s because we’d all assumed it was probably happening, or because we don’t really recognise the kind of surveillance we’re all living under.

If every piece of mail you received had already been opened and clumsily sellotaped shut again. If every conversation you had with friends involved a suited stranger writing down everything said in a notepad. If someone peered at the keypad every time you entered your pin number. If someone looked through your shopping every time you were at the checkout. If someone sat next to you as you surfed the internet making a note of everything you were doing. If all of this was happening, would you accept the explanation that they weren’t interested in what *you* were doing because they were treating everyone in the same way? The Stasi used to secretly spray dissidents with radioactive chemicals so they could track their movement with Geiger counters. In a world where we all willingly carry tracking devices around with us, the surveillance state will behave differently. Is that something we’re willing to live with?

Jack Dean can be followed on twiiter @Jacqueimo