5 Things We Recently Learned About the NSA

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The last few months have been a whirlwind of revelations about one of the American government’s most secretive, shadowy organizations: the National Security Agency. Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden’s massive information leaks have let us in on all sorts of amazing, sometimes chilling facts about the agency. The ensuing media maelstrom added more and more revelations; it seems like not a week went by without yet another fascinating fact coming to light. Today, we’ll talk about five of the most important things Americans learned about the NSA this summer (and yes, in case you were wondering, they already know all about what you did this summer).

5 The NSA Exists

Before the recent media uproar, many Americans had never even heard of the NSA. Sure, most citizens knew about the CIA and the FBI, and some had heard about the DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency), but the National Security Agency has always kept a low profile despite its massive size and the breathtaking scope of its operations. In fact, within the military and intelligence communities, the nickname for the NSA used to be No Such Agency. But, such an agency has indeed existed since 1952. For those of you still in the dark on this one, the NSA gathers “signals intelligence,” which basically means monitoring electronic communications such as satellite transmissions, phone calls and the drunken text you sent your ex at 3 a.m.

4 We Spy on Our Friends

Perhaps the most damning revelation of the entire Snowden Affair was the disclosure that America spends a lot of time and money spying on our international friends. The agency is rumored to have tapped into communications of countries such as Mexico, Brazil and even some of our closest allies—Germany and the United Kingdom. Apparently, NSA agents even “bugged” the headquarters of the United Nations! Of course, it also came out that plural international intelligence agencies were complicit in this type of activity, and might have worked hand-in-hand with the NSA…

3 We Are Being Spied On… Legally

Don’t worry, the NSA can spy on just about everything you do anywhere you do it, but it’s totally cool: they asked permission first! Under influence from the Obama Administration, in 2011 a surveillance court (yeah, that’s a thing) overturned a 2008 ban on searches of domestic email and phone communications. Agency spokespeople claim they do not typically look at the content of communications and only collect “meta-data,” such as what phone numbers or email addresses were connecting, when they did so, and the duration of exchanges, but even knowing that all of that is accessible should make you consider the subject line of that next email to your college buddies a bit more carefully.

2 The NSA Loves the iPhone

Millions of people around the world love their trusty iPhones, with the device’s superlative processing speed, its quality camera and its array of apps! Guess who also loves the iPhone? That’s right, the National Security Agency! Why? They love it because apparently an iPhone is easy to hack into and contains all sorts of data that can be tracked, thanks to dozens of different features that provide data. The iPhone stores information ranging from locations visited thanks to its built in GPS system, it has a long phone log, it has contact info, it supports communication via text, chat and email, and then let’s not forget that camera! They can look at your photos and they can look at you via the lens, too!

1 The NSA Gets Most of Its Data Just by Asking for It

The #1 technique the National Security Agency uses to hack into the private communications of people around the world is… asking companies to let them do it. Corporations ranging from Microsoft to Yahoo apparently worked with the NSA on multiple occasions, often turning over records or allowing the agency to access their encrypted systems. Sometimes the agency made such requests using warrants and subpoenas, and thus the companies were obliged to comply, but at other times agency officials simply requested data or access and the complicit corporations opened up their proverbial backdoors.

If you need a little more back ground, read our 5 Consequences of the NSA’s spying.

And relive some of your paranoid fantasies with the 5 Biggest government conspiracies.

Steven John is a published novelist and competitive pole vault champion. (The latter is not true.) His writing runs the gamut from speculative fiction to essays fueled by a mix of mirth and derision. He has never been to Lisbon but, statistically speaking, is probably taller than you.

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