The element of end user consent has been virtually ripped off ever since Edward Snowden revealed information regarding NSA’s intent. Today hacking has become more of a profession; a daily ritual for such organizations – they treat it as a growth area maintained within the dark recesses of their departments.

NSA Building Photo

Recently ‘Guardian’ magazine published an interesting article with an intake on how NSA is jeopardizing an average U.S. citizen’s privacy while giving him/her the illusion of protection from mass scale terrorists – so much so that the NSA, the CIA and the FBI have gone to extreme lengths where their present level of surveillance, unwarranted email access, call tapping and such other actions were not genuinely, or entirely, needed.

UK’s Guardian talks about the “total portrait of surveillance in National Security Agency” as an organization where more than 30,000 employees are dedicated to using surveillance as a diplomatic advantage. As much as the U.S. is secretly involved in carrying out such operations on foreign grounds, back at the States, the picture is even bleaker.

The New York Times reports NSA operations as a means to “spy ROUTINELY on friends as well as foes, not only to fight terrorism but to gain an upper hand over allies, such as France, Brazil, Japan, Germany and etc.” At times, the statement relates to comic sketches where these “allies” are hugging each other whilst hiding knives behind their backs.

Pieces from The Guardian and NY Times agree that whatever NSA is doing is benefiting the U.S. Military. However, the same use of technology in virtually every country and against any number of citizens, whether domestic or foreign, is not considered a permissible act. The moral boundaries become obscure at some level.

At the same level, the Agency has its share of failures and fallouts. NY Times suggests that “to produce a clear victory over a low tech enemy” and “to the much reported shortcomings in regard to ensuring the privacy of Americans’ communication” sometimes goes to unwanted levels. Not only are those incidents a waste of tax payers’ money, but also the same level of energy could have been applied to other public welfare projects inside the U.S.

The NSA’s Tailored Access Operations – What you need to know?

TAOs, or Tailored Access Operations, is a section maintained at the NSA which is responsible for gaining access to suspect computers all around the country as well as the world. Reporters from Times and NY Times state that TAO is the agency’s division which has held several individuals responsible for religiously “breaking into computers around the world to steal the data inside, and (while doing so) leave a spy software behind” for future entries.

Likewise, employees at the organization’s Transgression Branch allow fellow hackers (mostly freelance) to do the work and piggyback on the success factor all the way:

The N.S.A.’s elite Transgression Branch, created in 2009 to ‘discover, understand, evaluate and exploit’ foreign hackers’ work, quietly piggybacks on others’ incursions into computers of interest, like thieves who follow other housebreakers around and go through the windows they have left ajar.

In one 2010 hacking operation code-named Ironavenger, for instance, the N.S.A. spied simultaneously on an ally and an adversary. Analysts spotted suspicious e-mails being sent to a government office of great intelligence interest in a hostile country and realized that an American ally was “spear-phishing” — sending official-looking e-mails that, when opened, planted malware that let hackers inside.

The Americans silently followed the foreign hackers, collecting documents and passwords from computers in the hostile country, an elusive target. They got a look inside that government and simultaneously got a close-up look at the ally’s cyberskills, the kind of intelligence twofer that is the unit’s specialty.

Times magazine took an interesting scoop at NSA operations. Recently, their writer was quoted as, “In a note that may comfort computer novices, the NSA Middle East analysts discovered major glitches in their search software: The computer was searching for the names of targets but not their email addresses, a rather fundamental flaw.” Furthermore, “over 500 messages in one week did not come in.

“We Probably Dwarf Everybody on the Planet” – James Clapper: NSA Director

The National Security Agency’s director, James Clapper said, “There is no question that from a capability standpoint we probably dwarf everybody on the planet, just about, with the exception of Russia and China.”

Times reporters also suggest that in times of crisis, these operations have vital importance. However, the consequences of these “projects” are sometimes beyond the Agency’s initial predictions. The Times further continues:

That creates intense pressure not to miss anything. When that is combined with an ample budget and near-invisibility to the public, the result is aggressive surveillance of the kind that has sometimes gotten the agency in trouble with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, a United States federal court that polices its programs for breaches of Americans’ privacy.

At this point, it would be important to state down what the Guardian thinks in relation to Times’ perspective:

While there are frequent warnings in the [internal agency] documents reminding NSA staff of rules for protecting the privacy of Americans, other documents show repeated violations. Such violations are almost inevitable given the way the NSA collects so much, the technology and analysts unable to distinguish between data on foreigners and American citizens.

The NSA says in public it only collects a tiny percentage of Internet traffic, smaller than ‘a dime on a basketball court.’ But there is a gulf between what the NSA says in public and what it says in documents, in which technicians and analysts express their glee at finding novel ways of cracking into electronic communications and expanding their reach in ever more imaginative ways.

The question critics of the NSA raise is: just because it has the technical ability to do these things, should it?

For reference and off site sources, Guardian’s article, ‘Portrait of NSA: No detail too small in quest for total surveillance’, and Times post is available here ‘ No Morsel too Minuscule for All-Consuming N.S.Aare worth reading.