In 2013, Edward Snowden revealed the NSA collects personal data on every American, as well as many more people worldwide. The shockwave of the revelations still ripples today.
What is the NSA?
The NSA is the U.S. National Security Agency. Although it ostensibly works to protect U.S. citizens and interests, the NSA monitors every American and the people of many allied countries—all with the backing of the U.S. government and large portions of Congress.
But it’s not only the NSA spying on its own people. Its counterparts at the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) are also spying on and hacking targets of interest.
Here are ten ways the NSA is still spying on you, right now, according to documents leaked by Edward Snowden and further investigation by the press.
How NSA surveillance works in America
1. The NSA can still access your phone records
In 2018, the NSA acquired data from over 600 million phone calls and text messages. It proceeded to delete many of them, citing “technical irregularities” but didn’t specify how many were expunged from servers. The USA FREEDOM Act, passed in 2015, puts the onus on telecommunication providers to hold on to phone records, after which they can be requested by the NSA rather than the spy agency keeping tabs on them directly.
This has meant that the overall extent of phone records collected by the NSA has gone down—but it’s hard to take their word at face value. After all, it wouldn’t be the first time that the NSA has straight up lied about its surveillance policies.
2. Big Tech passes your data to the NSA
Facebook, Google, Apple, and six other leading online services have all gone on record as having given their customers’ data to the NSA, as legally required by the “PRISM” program. Data shared includes emails, messages, and documents.
3. The NSA can hack your devices
When the NSA finds a security hole in a popular consumer device, it does not fix the security hole, but instead exploits it. The NSA’s hacking unit, Tailored Access Operations, has developed a whole range of hacking exploits. These enable the NSA to break into consumer electronics devices and IT systems as it sees fit.
4. The NSA puts “backdoors” in your devices
The NSA has made the job of hacking security devices easier for itself by coercing many manufacturers to build vulnerabilities into products. The NSA supposedly created new guidelines surrounding this practice after the Snowden revelations but refuses to say what those guidelines are.
If that isn’t enough, the NSA is known to intercept shipments of computers and phones to put “backdoors” on them. The backdoor circumvents security measures of the device, allowing the NSA to spy on the end user.
5. The NSA can track you wherever you are
When you move around town, cell phone towers can calculate your exact position. Though the NSA claims it no longer collects this bulk data itself, cell phone providers are still required to do so, and they, in turn, must surrender those records to the NSA when ordered by a court.
By far the worst aspect of this unwieldy power is that you don’t even have to be the subject of an inquiry yourself. The data of millions can be handed over, without notice, because you had even the most tangential connection to a person under surveillance.
How the NSA spies on you overseas
6. The NSA has tapped internet lines worldwide
The internet connects different continents via undersea fiber optic cables that carry staggering amounts of data. In some places, the NSA has deals with local intelligence agencies to tap into these cables; in others, it does so on its own. The NSA even uses submarines to attach snooping bugs to wires deep beneath in the ocean.
7. The NSA hacks foreign companies
In Brazil, Germany, and other countries, the NSA has broken into the internal networks of major telecommunications providers, intercepting the data they gather and weakening the security of their systems. It collects every email and phone call it can.
8. The NSA knows everything you own and buy
Through agreements and hacking, the NSA can access credit card networks, payment gateways, and wire-transfer facilities around the world. This monetary surveillance allows the NSA to follow every cent of your money and know where it comes from and what you spend it on.
9. The NSA spies on foreign leaders
Another revelation in the Snowden documents was that the NSA asks senior officials in the White House, State Department, and Pentagon to share personal information they have on foreign leaders.
The leaked memo revealed that over 200 confidential phone numbers were handed over to the NSA, which proceeded to tap their conversations. The NSA didn’t spare countries friendly to the U.S. either, with German leader Angela Merkel also one of the ones targeted.
10. The NSA can spy on tracking cookies
Cookies, or small packets of data that relay location history and used to serve you with targeted ads, have also been collected by the NSA. The spy agency has honed in on them to identify users around the world as prime hacking targets.
Protect yourself from NSA surveillance
While NSA surveillance extends across the globe, there is still a lot you can do to safeguard your internet privacy. Check out this list of top privacy tips and always be conscious of what you’re sharing, with whom you’re sharing, and how you share it.
FAQ: About NSA spying
Why does the NSA spy on us?
The NSA conducts mass surveillance (otherwise known as spying) for the alleged purpose of “national foreign security intelligence and counterintelligence purposes and to support military operations,” according to the NSA itself.
The 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon spurred the U.S. government to pass the USA Patriot Act, a landmark piece of legislation with the stated goal of tightening U.S. national security against the threat of terrorism. The act made it easier for the NSA to monitor the phone and email communications of ordinary Americans, as well as track their activities on the internet.
The Prism program is another reason the NSA spies on American citizens. The U.S. government claim that Prism is used exclusively for gathering information about foreign targets seeking to commit acts of terrorism against the United States.
However, Edward Snowdon revealed the true reality of Prism, warning that the scale of the mass data collection was greater than the public was aware of, including spying into the communications of American citizens.
When did the NSA start spying?
The NSA was spying as far back as 1919 in its precursory guise as Black Chamber. The Black Chamber persuaded Western Union and several other telegram and communications companies to give them illegal access to the telegram traffic of foreign embassies and consulates.
It’s difficult to know exactly when the NSA started the modern mass surveillance of American citizens. The public first became aware of this mass surveillance in late 2005 following a series of news reports. Thanks to these reports and evidence provided by whistleblower Mark Klein, a former AT&T technician, we know that the NSA has been spying on ordinary Americans since at least 2001.
How can you stop the NSA from spying on you?
Use encryption whenever possible, including moving to more secure instant messaging apps such as Signal. It’s also a good idea to avoid using ride sharing apps and online shops, as these can track your location as well as your personal and financial information.
Another step you can take is to use cash or Bitcoin rather than credit and debit cards when making payments. It’s also worth avoiding social networks, where your activity can be monitored. Using a VPN and Tor can also make it harder for anyone to track your location or know your identity when you go online.
Of course, the NSA can still track your movements via your phone. This is because your phone is in constant communication with cell phone towers. Turning your phone off or getting rid of it completely will also make it more difficult for the NSA to spy on you.
Does the NSA spy on other countries?
Yes, the NSA has the authority to spy on 193 countries. Only four countries are exempt from the NSA’s surveillance: the UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. The U.S. has signed no-spying agreements with these four countries, and the five of them together are known as the Five Eyes.