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Some essential additions to our Internet glossary

1390397_79061953_330Times are changing and we have to learn new things all the time. People interested in privacy on the Internet have been faced with a flood of new acronyms and terms lately. Here comes a brief list of terminology that has remained fairly unknown for a long time, but suddenly become very central to how our cyber society is developing. Keep these in mind if you want to be privacy-savvy.

Echelon
The best know signal intelligence system of the cold war era. Operated by the NSA and capable to store and analyze both data and telephone traffic globally. Today a legacy system.

FISA, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act
A US law that, together with other related laws and amendments, controls usage of non-US citizens’ communications for the benefit of US interests. Controls is however a misleading word as it pretty much boils down to carte blanche to spy on foreigners. This is of paramount importance for the whole Internet as most of the cloud services are run by American companies, and most users are foreigners.

FISC, FISA-Court, United States Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court
A secret US court that is supposed to review and approve data gathering efforts under the FISA and related laws. Evil tongues call it a rubber stamp, but it has actually denied 11 requests out of a total of 33 949 during 1979-2012. (Some of those 11 were approved after modification.)

Gag Order
A court order to shut up about something.

GCHQ, Government Communications Headquarters
UK’s own NSA. Responsible for gathering info from Internet traffic for the needs of the UK government and military.

Lavabit
A former encrypted mail service run by Ladar Levinson. Became iconic in the fight for Internet privacy when closed down in August 2013. According to Ladar: “I have been forced to make a difficult decision: to become complicit in crimes against the American people or walk away from nearly ten years of hard work by shutting down Lavabit.” This smells NSL (see below) to high heaven.

NSA, National Security Agency
USA’s main signals intelligence agency. Operates globally to intercept and decode information. Recent reports indicate that NSA’s strategy largely seems to be to store as much information as possibly for further use, rather than picking targets and eavesdropping selectively. NSA is also a leader in cryptography and cryptanalysis, and is believed to have more supercomputer capacity than anyone else on this planet.

NSL, National security letter
An order from a US agency to hand over information or implement information gathering systems. These letters come with strict gag orders that even prevents the subject from revealing the existence of a NSL or seeking legal advice about it. Their legal status is controversial because of the broad gag orders that are in conflict with the 1st amendment. Anyone should keep the NSLs in mind when listening to top executives of Google, Facebook, Apple etc. who denies that NSA can tap into their systems.

PRISM
Currently the best known of all the data gathering programs run by NSA. PRISM is apparently a database application that stores data from many sources.

SIGINT, Signals intelligence
Operations aiming to gather information by eavesdropping on communications and other signals or stored data. Involves the art of decoding or decrypting messages as well as gathering information by analyzing traffic patterns.

Tempora
A system run by UK’s GCHQ that collects data in real time from internet and telephone communications.

Utah data center
A data center located in Bluffdale, Utah and operated by the NSA. The center is about to be finalized and believed to provide 3 – 12 Exabyte of storage data right now, more in the future as storage technology evolves. It has been said that five Exabyte is equivalent to all words ever spoken by humans since the dawn of time. This is outdated, but still interesting when trying to imagine how much an Exabyte really is. So what exactly is NSA going to do with all this storage?

XKeyscore
A NSA system that gives analysts powerful tools to query for information about identified targets or suspicious patterns in larger datasets.

Whistleblower
A person who makes crimes or other unethical activities known to a larger public, often by violating agreements or the law. A significant portion of what we know about SIGINT on the Internet has been revealed by whistleblowers.

This list of secret NSA programs and codenames is far from complete. Security guru Bruce Schneier puts it very well in a TED interview together with our Mikko Hyppönen.

Bruce Schneier: “First, be careful with names. PRISM is a specific NSA database, just a part of the overall NSA surveillance effort. The agency has been playing all sorts of games with names, dividing their efforts up and using many different code names in an attempt to disguise what they’re doing. It allows them to deny that a specific program is doing something, while conveniently omitting the fact that another program is doing the thing and the two programs are talking to each other. So I am less interested in what is in the specific PRISM database, and more what the NSA is doing overall with domestic surveillance.”

Very well said! Here you can find a more comprehensive list of NSA programs and codenames.

Safe surfing,
Micke

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