The Unaudited Tech Analyst Access to US Person Data

In addition to its exposure of the sheer senselessness of much of the spying NSA engages in, yesterday’s WaPo story also shows that the government’s assurances that Edward Snowden could not access raw data have been misplaced.

For close to a year, NSA and other government officials have appeared to deny, in congressional testimony and public statements, that Snowden had any access to the material.

As recently as May, shortly after he retired as NSA director, Gen. Keith Alexander denied that Snowden could have passed FISA content to journalists.

“He didn’t get this data,” Alexander told a New Yorker reporter. “They didn’t touch —”

“The operational data?” the reporter asked.

“They didn’t touch the FISA data,” Alexander replied. He added, “That database, he didn’t have access to.”

Robert S. Litt, the general counsel for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, said in a prepared statement that Alexander and other officials were speaking only about “raw” intelligence, the term for intercepted content that has not yet been evaluated, stamped with classification markings or minimized to mask U.S. identities.

“We have talked about the very strict controls on raw traffic, the training that people have to have, the technological lockdowns on access,” Litt said. “Nothing that you have given us indicates that Snowden was able to circumvent that in any way.”

In the interview, Snowden said he did not need to circumvent those controls, because his final position as a contractor for Booz Allen at the NSA’s Hawaii operations center gave him “unusually broad, unescorted access to raw SIGINT [signals intelligence] under a special ‘Dual Authorities’ role,” a reference to Section 702 for domestic collection and Executive Order 12333 for collection overseas. Those credentials, he said, allowed him to search stored content — and “task” new collection — without prior approval of his search terms.

No one should ever have believed those assurances.

That’s because the documentation on the Section 215 program makes it clear how little oversight there is over tech people just like Snowden. The current phone dragnet order, for example, makes it clear that:

  • Tech personnel may access the phone dragnet data to tweak it in preparation for contact-chaining
  • Unlike intelligence analysts, tech personnel may query the phone dragnet data with selectors that have not been RAS-approved
  • Tech personnel may also conduct regular queries using RAS-approved selectors
  • Tech personnel may access the dragnet data to search for high volume numbers — this may require access to raw data
  • Some of the tech personnel (those in charge of infrastructure and receiving data from the telecoms) are exempt from special training on the phone dragnet data

The audit language in the dragnet order applies only to “foreign intelligence analysis purposes or using foreign intelligence analysis tools,” suggesting the tech analysis role access to the dragnet data is not audited.

Language in the order defining “NSA” suggests contractors may access the data (though it’s unclear whether they do so in a technical or intelligence analysis function); something made explicit in Dianne Feinstein’s bill.

That is, it is at least possible that Booz analysts are currently conducting audit-free tech massaging of the raw phone dragnet data.

And NSA knew this access was a vulnerability. As recently as 2012, tech analysts were found to have 3,000 files worth of phone dragnet data (it’s unclear how much data each file included) on an improper server past its required destruction date. NSA destroyed that data before definitively researching what it was doing there.

Thus, the risk of tech analyst breach is very real, and no one — not NSA, and not Congress, which has only codified this arrangement — seems to be addressing it.

Indeed, it is likely that some kind of Booz-type contractors will continue to have direct access to this data after it gets outsourced to the telecoms, otherwise USA Freedumber would not extend immunity to such second-level contractors.

For months, intelligence officials claimed not only that Snowden had not accessed raw data, but could not. That was always a dubious claim; even if Snowden couldn’t have accessed that data, other contractors just like him could and still can, with less oversight than NSA’s intelligence analysts get.

But it turns out Snowden could and did. And thanks to that, we now know many of the other claims made by government witnesses are also false.

Tweet about this on Twitter0Share on Reddit0Share on Facebook0Google+0Email to someone

16 Responses to The Unaudited Tech Analyst Access to US Person Data

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
  • 11
  • 12
  • 13
  • 14
  • 15
  • 16
Emptywheel Twitterverse
emptywheel @BaFana3 You have to admit, Hadi's "election," as laughable as it was, was loads more democratic than the Sauds'.
2mreplyretweetfavorite
emptywheel RT @BaFana3: Specifically, Saudi Arabia says its war aims to "reinstall" Hadi as the "legitimate" government of #Yemen. What "legitimacy"? …
2mreplyretweetfavorite
emptywheel Love that govt doesn't want you to know all the things that were on Tamerlan's smart phone, since NSA did collect on him but not read it.
20mreplyretweetfavorite
emptywheel Very impt in anticipation of USA F-ReDux rollout: IC CAN'T do everything want to do right now. Beware expansion! https://t.co/N5zxWvmnoO
25mreplyretweetfavorite
emptywheel Can someone at the @steve_vladeck panel ask Bob Litt if he thinks MoDo is a disgrace for being dealt and publishing info abt CIA women?
30mreplyretweetfavorite
emptywheel Oh no! @mattapuzzo & @MarkMazzettiNYT disgraced NYT for reporting known names of drone killers, sez Bob Litt https://t.co/CFyBTRwskg
39mreplyretweetfavorite
bmaz RT @DLind: Motel 6: We'll leave the Panoptic on for you. https://t.co/DojCMNYoNM
1hreplyretweetfavorite
bmaz RT @RKTlaw: @bmaz @ScottGreenfield @TimCushing Guess they leave a light on for the cops too
1hreplyretweetfavorite
emptywheel @josephfcox That plus who ever does anything fun in Windows? Soon they'll say Linux use is a sign of support for terrorism, like encryption
1hreplyretweetfavorite
bmaz RT @Popehat: If you're traveling on a Budget, might want to skip Motel 6. Snitches should get stitches. https://t.co/02JUvlynqw
1hreplyretweetfavorite
bmaz @ScottGreenfield @TimCushing What the fuck??
1hreplyretweetfavorite
July 2014
S M T W T F S
« Jun   Aug »
 12345
6789101112
13141516171819
20212223242526
2728293031