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Is the Government Reading Your Email?

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The National Security Agency is the primary cryptographic and signals-intelligence agency of the United States. To spy on foreign communications, it operates data collection platforms in more than 50 countries and uses airplanes and submarines, ships and satellites, specially modified trucks, and cleverly disguised antennas. It has managed to break the cryptographic systems of most of its targets and prides itself on sending first-rate product to the president of the United States.

Inside the United States, the NSA’s collection is regulated by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, passed in 1978 to provide a legal framework for intercepting communications related to foreign intelligence or terrorism where one party is inside the United States and might be considered a “U.S. person.”

Three bits of terminology: The NSA “collects on” someone, with the preposition indicating the broad scope of the verb. Think of a rake pushing leaves into a bin. The NSA intercepts a very small percentage of the communications it collects. At the NSA, to “intercept” is to introduce to the collection process an analyst, who examines a leaf that has appeared in his or her computer bin. (An analyst could use computer software to assist here, but the basic distinction the NSA makes is that the actual interception requires intent and specificity on behalf of the interceptor.) A “U.S. person” refers to a U.S. citizen, a legal resident of the United States, or a corporation or business legally chartered inside the United States.

So the big question everyone wonders is: does the NSA read my e-mail? Based on the public statements of the former director of the National Security Agency, Justice Department attorneys, and others involved in NSA operations—as well as confidential information provided to the authors and verified independently by officials read in to the programs—here is how to tell if the NSA spies on you:

1. If you regularly call people in Afghanistan, Pakistan, or Yemen, your telephone records have probably passed through an NSA computer. Most likely, however, if you’ve been calling rug merchants or relatives, no one at the NSA knew your name. (A computer program sanitizes the actual identifying information.) Depending on the time, date, location, and contextual factors related to the call, a record may not have been created.

2. If you’ve sent an e-mail from an IP address that has been used by bad guys in the past (IP addresses can be spoofed), your e-mail’s metadata—the hidden directions that tell the Internet where to send it (that is, the To and From lines, the subject line, the length, and the type of e-mail) probably passed through a server. The chances of an analyst or a computer actually reading the content of an e-mail are very slim.

3. If you are or were a lawyer for someone formally accused of terrorism, there is a good chance that the NSA has or had—but could not or cannot access (at least not anymore)—your telephone billing records. (N.B.: A Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report notes that the FISA Amendments Act does not require material erroneously collected to be destroyed.)

4. If you work for a member of the “Defense Industrial Base” on sensitive projects and your company uses Verizon and AT&T, your e-mail has likely been screened by NSA computers for malware.

5. Before 2007, if you, as an American citizen, worked overseas in or near a war zone, there is a small chance that you were “collected on” by a civilian NSA analyst or a member of the NSA’s Central Security Service (the name given to the military service elements that make up a large part of the NSA’s workforce).

6. If you, from September 2001 to roughly April 2004, called or sent e-mail to or from regions associated with terrorism and used American Internet companies to do so, your transaction records (again, without identifying information) were likely collected by your telecommunications company and passed to the NSA. The records were then analyzed, and there is a tiny chance that a person or a computer read them or sampled them. The NSA would ask telecommunications companies for tranches of data that correlated to particular communities of interest, and then used a variety of classified and unclassified techniques to predict, based on their analysis, who was likely to be associated with terrorism. This determination required at least one additional and independent extraneous piece of evidence.

7. There is a chance that the NSA passed this data to the FBI for further investigation. There is a small chance that the FBI acted on this information.

8. If you define “collection” in the broadest sense possible, there is a good chance that if the NSA wanted to obtain your transactional information in real time and knew your direct identity (or had a rough idea of who you are), they can do so, provided that they can prove to a FISA judge within seventy-two hours that there is probable cause to believe you are a terrorist or associated with a terrorist organization.

9. If the NSA receives permission from a judge to collect on a corporation or a charity that may be associated with terrorism, and your company, which is entirely separate from the organization in question, happens to share a location with it (either because you’re in the same building or have contracted with the company to share Internet services), there is a chance that the NSA incidentally collects your work e-mail and phone calls. It is very hard for the agency to map IP addresses to their physical locations and to completely segregate parts of corporate telephone networks. When this happens, Congress and the Justice Department are notified, and an NSA internal compliance unit makes a record of the “overcollect.”

10. If any of your communications were accidentally or incidentally collected by the NSA, they probably still exist somewhere, subject to classified minimization requirements. (The main NSA signals-intelligence database is code-named PINWALE.) This is the case even after certain collection activities became illegal with the passage of the 2007 FISA Amendments Act, the governing framework for domestic collection. The act does not require the NSA to destroy the data.

11. If you are of Arab descent and attend a mosque whose imam was linked through degrees of association with Islamic charities considered to be supporters of terrorism, NSA computers probably analyzed metadata from your telephone communications and e-mail.

12. Your data might have been intercepted or collected by Russia, China, or Israel if you traveled to those countries. The FBI has quietly found and removed transmitters from several Washington, D.C.–area cell phone towers that fed all data to wire rooms at foreign embassies.

13. The chances, if you are not a criminal or a terrorist, that an analyst at the NSA listened to one of your telephone conversations or read one of your e-mail messages are infinitesimally small given the technological challenges associated with the program, not to mention the lack of manpower available to sort through your irrelevant communications. If an unintentional collection occurred (an overcollect), it would be deleted and not stored in any database.

What safeguards exist today?

From what we could figure out, only three dozen or so people inside the NSA have the authority to read the content of FISA-derived material, all of which is now subject to a warrant. Can the NSA share FISA product on U.S. persons with other countries? By law it cannot and does not. (The FBI can, and does.) What is the size of the compliance staff that monitors domestic collection? Four or five people, depending on the budget cycle. How many people outside the NSA are privy to the full details of the program? More than one thousand. How can you find out if you’ve been accidentally or incidentally surveilled? You can’t. You can sue, but the government will invoke a state secrets privilege, and judges will probably agree—even when you can prove without any secret evidence that there is probable cause to believe that you were surveilled.

The NSA’s general counsel’s office regularly reviews the “target folders”—the identities of those under surveillance—to make sure the program complied with the instruction to surveil those reasonably assumed to have connections to al-Qaeda. They do this by sampling a number of the folders at random. How do we know the program isn’t expanding right now, pushing the boundaries of legality, spying not just on suspected terrorists but on American dissidents? We don’t. But if it is, and over a thousand people are involved, how much longer can that secret last?

Adapted from Deep State: Inside the Government Secrecy Industry, by Marc Ambinder and D.B. Grady. Grady is a regular contributor to mental_floss.

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Animals
Plagued with Rodents, Members of the UK Parliament Demand a Cat
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Members of the United Kingdom’s Parliament want a cat, but not just for office cuddles: As The Telegraph reports, the Palace of Westminster—the meeting place of Parliament’s two houses, the House of Commons and the House of Lords—is overrun with vermin, and officials have had enough. They think an in-house feline would keep the rodents at bay and defray skyrocketing pest control costs.

Taxpayers in the UK recently had to bear the brunt of a $167,000 pest control bill after palace maintenance projects and office renovations disturbed mice and moths from their slumber. The bill—which was nearly one-third higher than the previous year’s—covered the cost of a full-time pest control technician and 1700 bait stations. That said, some Members of Parliament (MPs) think their problem could be solved the old-fashioned way: by deploying a talented mouser.

MP Penny Mordaunt tried taking matters into her own hands by bringing four cats—including her own pet kitty, Titania—to work. (“A great believer in credible deterrence, I’m applying the principle to the lower ministerial corridor mouse problem,” she tweeted.) This solution didn’t last long, however, as health and safety officials banned the cats from Parliament.

While cats aren’t allowed in Parliament, other government offices reportedly have in-house felines. And now, MPs—who are sick of mice getting into their food, running across desks, and scurrying around in the tearoom—are petitioning for the same luxury.

"This is so UNFAIR,” MP Stella Creasy said recently, according to The Telegraph. “When does Parliament get its own cats? We’ve got loads of mice (and some rats!) after all!" Plus, Creasy points out, a cat in Parliament is “YouTube gold in waiting!"

Animal charity Battersea Dogs & Cats Home wants to help, and says it’s been trying to convince Parliament to adopt a cat since 2014. "Battersea has over 130 years [experience] in re-homing rescue cats, and was the first choice for Downing Street, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and the Cabinet Office when they sought our mousers to help with their own rogue rodents,” charity head Lindsey Quinlan said in a statement quoted by The Telegraph. “We'd be more than happy to help the Houses of Parliament recruit their own chief mousers to eliminate their pest problem and restore order in the historic corridors of power."

As of now, only assistance and security dogs are allowed on palace premises—but considering that MPs spotted 217 mice alone in the first six months of 2017, top brass may have to reconsider their rules and give elected officials purr-mission to get their own feline office companions.

[h/t The Telegraph]

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Weird
How the U-2 Aircraft Made Area 51 Synonymous With UFOs
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Master Sgt. Rose Reynolds, U.S. Air Force, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Area 51 may be the world’s most famous secret military base. Established on an abandoned airfield in the Nevada desert, the facility has fueled the imaginations of conspiracy theorists scanning the skies for UFOs for decades. But the truth about Area 51’s origins, while secretive, isn’t as thrilling as alien autopsies and flying saucers.

According to Business Insider, the U.S. government intended to build a base where they could test a top-secret military aircraft without drawing attention from civilians or spies. That aircraft, the U-2 plane, needed to fly higher than any other manmade object in the skies. That way it could perform recon missions over the USSR without getting shot down.

Even over the desert, the U-2 didn’t go completely undetected during test flights. Pilots who noticed the craft high above them reported it as an “unidentified flying object.” Not wanting to reveal the true nature of the project, Air Force officials gave flimsy explanations for the sightings pointing to either natural phenomena or weather research. UFO believers were right to think the government was covering something up, they were just wrong about the alien part.

You can get the full story in the video below.

[h/t Business Insider]

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