What did the NSA Exactly Do?

November 20, 2014 | By Editor 


Is still remains unclear as to exactly how many documents Edward Snowden illegally accessed while working for the National Security Agency (NSA). Some estimates are as high as 1.3 million. Snowden was a contract employee at one of NSA’s signals intelligence facility in Hawaii.

As a contractor with high-level Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI) clearance, Snowden had access to servers and networks that contain millions of classified materials. NSA officials that the documents Snowden stole are no way related to domestic surveillance.

But the documents did reveal NSA’s snooping activities on foreign leaders, governments, and top businesses. On June 5, 2013, The Washington Post published the first of Snowden’s leaks. Here are the top most that have garnered the maximum attention.

What did the NSA Exactly Do

Keeping Tabs on Smartphones

  • In addition to collecting Web data and phone metadata, NSA and its British counterpart GHCQ are capable of collecting data from iPhones, Androids, and Blackberry.
  • Intelligence agencies have the capacity to tap data such as contact lists, SMS traffic, notes, and location data from smartphones.
  • The NSA had separate teams specialized in gathering data from specific mobile OS.


  • NSA’s brainchild PRISM, an anti-terrorism surveillance program, collected user data from Google, Skype, Microsoft, Facebook, and other major Web-based companies.
  • The program allowed the FBI’s Data Intercept Technology Unit (DITU) to inspect particular items of interest that flow through the data streams of each of the firm.
  • PRISM helped NSA collect emails, documents, audios, videos, connection logs, and photos to counter terrorism by tracking movements and interactions of top foreign leaders.

Weaken Data Encryption

  • One of the most controversial leaks involved the efforts of NSA and GCHQ to weaken commercial encryption tools of Web users to guard everything from mails to sensitive files.
  • The techniques employed to weaken encryption included
  1. Using advanced computers to break encryption algorithms,
  2. Building backdoors into tech projects, and
  3. Forcing vendors to hand over decryption keys via court orders.
  • Snowden’s report showed that the U.S. Intel community spends around 20 percent of its $53 billion yearly budget on cryptographic operations and projects.
  • The NSA spends around $250 million every year on programs that work with vendors of encryption technologies to make the products easily exploitable.

About Half-a-million Computers Hacked

  • Tailored Access Operations (TAO), an elite NSA hacking unit, infected at least 50,000 systems across the globe “implants, a specialized malware.
  • In addition to the 50,000 implants, NSA’s Computer Network Exploitation (CNE) collected Web data and foreign satellite communications via its special data collection facilities.

Spying on World Leaders

  • Snowden’s leaks showed that the NSA spied on the phone conversations of around 35 world leaders.
  • Among the leaders who were monitored include Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and former president of Mexico Felipe Calderon.
  • French newspaper Le Monde claimed that NSA gathered information on millions of French citizens by snooping on Alcatel-Lucent, a French telecommunications firm.

Private Firms in NSA Snooping

  • Snowden’s report questioned the role pf private organizations in helping NSA gather information.
  • The concern was raised in December 2013 when RSA, EMC Corporation’s security division, enabled a backdoor for NSA in one its encryption technologies.
  • Firms such as Facebook, Microsoft, Google, and Yahoo have denied they have voluntarily given any user information to NSA or any other intel agency.
  • The firms claimed that the only circumstance that will compel them to provide user data is a court order.

Phone Data Collection

  • NSA has a program for collecting phone metadata records from phone companies of United States.
  • Using the program, NSA collected dialed and called numbers, call time, duration, International Mobile Station Equipment (IMSI) identity numbers, and location data.
  • The U.S. government justified its activities by saying that it collected data to the intelligence keep track of communications of unknown or suspected criminals.


  • Tempora, a secret surveillance program, was initiated by Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in alliance with NSA.
  • The program allowed GCHQ to collect information from data interceptors that were placed on regional and transatlantic fiber-optic cables.
  • These cables carries massive amounts of Web data into and outside United Kingdom from Web servers and exchanges in North America.
  • Data intercepted under the Tempora program include phone call records, Facebook entries, mail content, and Web browsing histories.
  • As of May 2012, the GCHQ has assigned 300 analysts and NSA had 250 analysts to analyze data under the program.

Tracking and Intercepting System Admins

  • Snowden’s report revealed that NSA infiltrated system admins working for foreign Internet firms and telecommunications companies.
  • According to the report, NSA aspired to create a international hit list of system admins to target them as a part its surveillance program.
  • The agency not only tried to get admin passwords, but also tried to obtain network maps and other information from targeted system admins outside the United States.


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