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XKeyscore – the Front End that Queries the NSA Databases

XKeyscore is used to extract information of interest from the huge amount that is collected by the various NSA data collection programs
XKeyscore is used to extract information of interest from the huge amount that is collected by the various NSA data collection programs

The revelations are being used to justify Snowden's earlier comment to the Guardian, "I had the authorities to wiretap anyone – you, a federal judge, to even the president if I had a personal email." At the time Mike Rogers, Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said, "He's lying. It's impossible for him to do what he was saying he could do."

The XKeyscore revelations suggest he was not lying. The training materials, reports the Guardian, "detail how analysts can use it and other systems to mine enormous agency databases by filling in a simple on-screen form giving only a broad justification for the search. The request is not reviewed by a court or any NSA personnel before it is processed."

This will add to the debate about the legality of the NSA's surveillance. Intelligence agencies believe that the collection of data is not in itself surveillance – it only becomes surveillance when that data is viewed. They also claim that their actual surveillance is targeted, and only on foreign nationals, thereby keeping it legal.

According to the Guardian, analysts have to provide a broad justification for using XKeyscore on a particular target. Marc Ambinder, writing in The Week, says every time an analyst "begins a new query, he or she has to convince the system that the target is foreign... Enough of these boxes have to be checked to provide a 51 percent foreignness threshold, after which the analyst can continue his or her work without any other paperwork."

Strictly speaking, then, Snowden was right – if the president was in conversation with a foreign national, he could be targeted by Edward Snowden or another NSA analyst without any further recourse to the courts. And, of course, strictly speaking, the NSA is also correct within its own definitions: only targeted surveillance on foreign nationals is undertaken.

It would also appear from the Guardian's report that XKeyscore is used to extract information of interest from the huge amount that is collected by the various NSA data collection programs. It quotes from one document, "At some sites, the amount of data we receive per day (20+ terabytes) can only be stored for as little as 24 hours." The Guardian also says, "Content remains on the system for only three to five days, while metadata is stored for 30 days." (Thirty days, co-incidentally, is exactly the same period that GCHQ's fiber tapping program is said to store the data it collects.) The 'targeted' data extracted by XKeyscore can then be stored separately for longer or indefinite periods.

What this latest Snowden revelation does is lend weight to both sides of the argument. The NSA, supported by foreign agencies and especially those of the Five Eyes countries, is undoubtedly engaged in the massive and indiscriminate collection of the telecommunications of anybody and everybody. It has the capability, through the XKeyscore search selectors – such as an email address – to monitor emails and chat conversations in real time.

However, through the search justification form associated with XKeyscore, it can equally claim that it undertakes only targeted surveillance of foreign nationals.

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