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Meet the NSA’s new data centers: Russia, China and Venezuela

August 1, 2013

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Here’s something the National Security Agency probably isn’t happy to find in Edward Snowden’s latest revelation about its activities: The surprising locations of the servers that make up the program X-KEYSCORE, which, according to one leaked agency presentation, has the ability to vacuum up nearly every move a user makes on the Internet.

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Those locations reportedly include China, Ecuador, Russia, Sudan and Venezuela. In short, the NSA has managed to either place or gain access to servers in a collection of countries that are deeply hostile to the United States. Put another way, computer technicians in every one of those countries are probably combing through their systems right now to figure out ways to boot out the NSA.

This week’s Guardian story on X-KEYSCORE includes a set of slides described as internal NSA training material. The slide in question says that the program includes roughly 150 sites around the world and spans some 700 servers. The Guardian’s coverage does not make entirely clear how the program works, but the report seems to outline a system that perches on top of communications infrastructure and sucks up streams of data that the X-KEYSCORE system then sifts into a searchable format. According to the Guardian, the volume of collected information is so large that content is stored on the system for three to five days before being deleted, and metadata stays on the system for 30 days. The picture that emerges is of NSA analysts running searches against a continuous data stream.

It doesn’t take much imagination to figure out how Chinese officials might feel about the NSA operating a mass-collection system inside its borders. “The Prismgate affair is itself just like a prism that reveals the true face and hypocritical conduct regarding Internet,” Defense Ministry spokesman Col. Yang Yujun said earlier this month. “To, on the one hand, abuse one’s advantages in information technology for selfish ends, while on the other hand, making baseless accusations against other countries, shows double standards that will be of no help for peace and security in cyberspace.” Now the Chinese can add the X-KEYSCORE allegations to their long list of complaints.

Edward Snowden once claimed that while sitting at his desk he had the ability to “wiretap anyone, from you or your accountant, to a federal judge or even the president, if I had a personal email.” The X-KEYSCORE revelations appear to at least partially validate that statement – and the Russian government’s decision earlier this month to invest in typewriters in response to the NSA leaks. And it’s not just that the NSA is able to collect vast quantities of information — it’s apparently able to do so in almost every corner of the globe. Consider this sampling of countries in which the NSA has an X-KEYSCORE presence: Mexico, Colombia, Brazil, Egypt, Algeria, Nigeria, Spain, France, Germany, Turkey, Pakistan, India, Japan, and even Myanmar.

As for red dots ringing Antarctica? Why the NSA would have “sites” in the South Pole is anyone’s guess.

© 2013, Foreign Policy

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