Facts and fiction, secrets and sci-fi: Breaking down the NSA

Keep your tin hat handy -- here's what we know and don't know about the National Security Agency's massive spying program

I don't know how you spent your weekend, but I spent mine glued to my Twitter feed, scanning Google News, and generally obsessing over the continuing mind-blowing revelations over spying by the National Security Agency.

The reports that came in last week were chaotic and contradictory. Some were overstated, others clearly wrong. Separating truth from fiction in any complex story is difficult, but when the story is about the world's largest and most secretive organization, it becomes nearly impossible. Still, here's a summary of what we think we know.

[ Also on InfoWorld: NSA to everyone: Take your PRISM, it's good for you. | For a humorous take on the tech industry's shenanigans, subscribe to Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter. | Get the latest insight on the tech news that matters from InfoWorld's Tech Watch blog. ]

PRISM is not the name of an NSA secret data gathering operation, but rather the name of the software used by the spooks to mine and analyze data (most likely built by Palantir Technologies, though the company has so far denied it).

The spooks apparently did not build automatic backdoors into Apple, Google, Facebook, Yahoo, and the rest, and do not automatically capture all data posted to these networks. But it is likely the NSA has built some kind of black-box system or even just an API that allows access to data from these Internet giants on select individuals.

The NSA and the White House claim that the spying is only targeted at foreign nationals, not U.S. citizens. But they also acknowledge that some Americans get caught up in the net. What happens to these citizens and their data, though, remains a mystery -- classified, top secret, and not for our eyes at all.

The man behind the curtain

But the biggest bombshell is that yesterday the leaker revealed himself to the world. He's a 29-year-old IT infrastructure analyst named Edward Snowden, working for government contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, who couldn't live with his conscience any more about what he felt was a clear and present danger to our freedoms posed by the immense power of the NSA.

Snowden is no Bradley Manning. He didn't leak these documents to hurt the United States. He professes to love his country. He says he deliberately withheld information that could expose NSA personnel or hurt individuals (which means he's no Lewis Libby or Dick Cheney, either). Before deciding to leak the documents to the press, he left his home and his $200K job in Hawaii and holed up in a hotel room in Hong Kong.

The Guardian has a 12-minute video interview with Snowden in his hotel room that's worth watching. He seems like a forthright, sincere, smart, and somewhat guileless individual -- an innocent, if you will, who may well end up slaughtered, if not penned up for the rest of his life.

At around the 2:45 mark he gets into the heart of why he did what he did:

The NSA specifically targets the communications of everyone, it ingests them by default. It collects them in its system and it filters them and it analyzes them and it stores them for periods of time, simply because that's the easiest, most efficient, and most valuable way to achieve these ends. While they may be intending to target someone associated with a foreign government or someone they suspect of terrorism, they're collecting your communications to do so...

Any analyst at any time can target anyone. Any selector, anywhere. Where those communications will be picked up depends on the range of the sensor networks and the authorities the analyst is empowered with... I, sitting at my desk, certainly had the authority to wiretap anyone, from you or your accountant to a federal judge to even the president if I had a personal email.

I think there's only one appropriate response: Holy ****!

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