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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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6 Times Multiple Leaders Reigned in a Single Year
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The longest presidential inauguration speech in U.S. history was given by William Henry Harrison when he took over from Martin Van Buren on March 4, 1841. Lasting a full hour and 45 minutes, the almost 8500-word speech was delivered amid a blinding snowstorm without a coat or hat to keep out the cold. Harrison's doctors blamed pneumonia caught that day for the president's death 31 days after taking office, though modern medical experts think the culprit was more likely enteric fever.

Whatever its cause, Harrison’s untimely death caused a brief political crisis, since it seemed unclear whether the president’s successor, Vice President John Tyler, should remain in power for Harrison’s full term or operate as acting president until a new election could be held. In the end, Tyler remained in office for the rest of Harrison’s term, becoming the United States’ third president in a single year. A similar situation emerged 40 years later, when James A. Garfield replaced Rutherford B. Hayes in March 1881 only to be replaced, after his death the following September, by Vice President Chester A. Arthur.

As tumultuous as these years were, they certainly aren’t the only in history to have seen an unusually quick turnaround in the highest offices in the land.

1. ANCIENT ROME, 69 C.E.

Shortly after Nero committed suicide in 68 C.E., the Roman Empire was thrown into a rocky 12 months known as The Year of the Four Emperors. Initially Nero was succeeded by the Roman governor Galba, but Galba soon proved just as unpredictable and as unpopular as his predecessor. As his reign became increasingly tyrannical (he had a habit of executing any senator he distrusted), he adopted a successor, slighting his longstanding supporter Otho, who subsequently arranged to have Galba and the successor assassinated on January 15, 69. Otho was crowned the same day, but Galba’s seven-month rule had caused such unrest across the empire that the northern province of Germania had already turned its back on Rome and appointed its own ruler, Aulus Vitellius—who now had his sights set firmly on the Roman throne.

In April, Vitellius marched his armies south, defeated Otho in battle, and swept to power. In celebration, he supposedly began spending so lavishly on parades and banquets in honor of himself that his entertainment bill alone almost bankrupted the state. But when his actions were questioned, he is said to have had his advisors, moneylenders, and debt collectors tortured and executed.

Once again, unrest spread throughout the empire, and in frustration many of the eastern provinces proclaimed Vespasian, one of Rome’s most successful generals, their new emperor. In December, an alliance of forces loyal to Vespasian met Vitellius’s dwindling supporters in battle at Cremona and ensured Vespasian’s successful march on Rome. After a short time on the run (with two of his chefs alongside him), Vitellius was caught, killed, and his body dumped in the Tiber. Vespasian took to the throne as the year came to an end, and quickly set about restoring some much-needed stability.

2. ENGLAND, 1016

Ethelred the Unready
Ethelred the Unready
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When the Saxon king Ethelred the Unready died on April 23, 1016, his 26-year-old son Edmund Ironside was elected to succeed him. He immediately faced the same struggle that had dogged his father’s final years: In the north of England, vast swathes of territory were being invaded and claimed by the Danish king Cnut the Great.

In the months that followed, Edmund’s armies clashed repeatedly with the Danes in a series of bloody but inconclusive battles, until finally a truce was agreed upon. England was to be divided between the two kings, with Edmund keeping the vast Saxon heartland of Wessex and Cnut ruling over the kingdoms of Northumbria and Mercia in the north and east. Just weeks later, however, Edmund too died suddenly and Cnut ascended to the throne unopposed as England’s third king in just eight months. Historians today are divided over whether foul play was responsible for Edmund’s death, and while some sources claim he succumbed to infected wounds inflicted in battle, at least one much more vivid account claims he was stabbed up the backside, while sitting on a latrine, by an assassin hiding in a cesspit.

3. FRANCE, 1316

 Louis X of France
Louis X
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When Louis X of France died on June 5, 1316 (either of pleurisy or from drinking poisoned wine, depending on which version you believe), a problem emerged over who should succeed him. Although Louis had a daughter, Joan, from his disastrous first marriage, a male heir was required—but Louis’s second wife, Queen Clementia of Hungary, was still pregnant at the time of the king’s death, and with the sex of the child unknown, it was impossible to tell whether Louis had a male successor or not.

As a result, Louis’s younger brother Philip was appointed regent for the final five months of the queen’s pregnancy, until finally, on November 15, 1316, she gave birth to a baby boy. The child was immediately crowned King John I, but died just five days later. The cause of his death is a mystery, and rumors soon emerged that the young king had likely been killed or exiled. But whatever the truth, Louis’s brother Philip was able to retake to the throne in his own right as King Philip V, becoming France’s third king in just six months.

4. THE VATICAN, 1590

Pope Sixtus V
Pope Sixtus V
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After the death of Pope Sixtus V on August 27, 1590, Urban VII was elected to succeed him a little over two weeks later, on September 15. But by September 27, Urban VII, too, was dead. His 13-day papacy remains the shortest in history, but despite its brevity he is nevertheless credited with introducing one of the world’s first smoking bans, threatening anyone who “took tobacco in the porchway of or inside of a church” with immediate excommunication. After Urban’s death, Gregory XIV became pope—the third in just 100 days—on December 5, but he fared little better and died of a “gallstone attack” the following October.

5. RUSSIA, 1605

When Tsar Feodor I died without a male heir to succeed him in 1598, the Russian parliament elected his brother-in-law and former advisor, Boris Godunov, as his successor. Although the first few years of Boris’s reign were prosperous, his rule later became a disaster: Russia was devastated by a widespread famine that killed a third of the population, and Boris’s ever-weakening leadership saw the country soon descend into anarchy. On his death in April 1605, Boris’s 16-year-old son succeeded him as Tsar Feodor II, but his reign only lasted a few weeks as both he and his mother were assassinated. And that paved the way for a successor few people saw coming.

A few years earlier, in 1601, a young man living in Moscow had attracted considerable attention by asserting that he was Tsarevich Dmitri Ivanovich, the youngest son of Ivan the Terrible. Tsarevich Dmitri, it was believed, had either been killed or had died in a terrible accident at the age of just 8 in 1591. This Muscovite Dmitri, however, claimed that the stories of his death had been greatly exaggerated: He had supposedly managed to escape and flee into exile, and with Russia on the verge of anarchy, he had now returned to take his rightful place as tsar.

Threatened with banishment for his treasonable actions, Dmitri fled to Lithuania, but there began forging support for his cause. With the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Catholic groups, and an army of mercenaries from across continental Europe now behind him, Dmitri marched on Moscow and swept to power on Feodor’s death to become Russia’s third tsar in as many months.

But even “False” Dmitri, as he became known, wasn’t to hold the throne for too long. A little under a year later, the Kremlin was stormed and Dmitri was killed by his opponents, having broken his leg fleeing from an upstairs window. (According to popular legend, as one final gesture, his body was cremated and his ashes fired from a cannon pointed in the direction of Poland.)

Dmitri was succeeded by Prince Vasili Shuisky (one of the opponents who had plotted his downfall), who became Tsar Vasili IV on May 19, 1606. His reign wasn’t exactly lacking in drama either—two more “False Dmitris” emerged over the coming years—leading to this entire shambolic period of Russian history becoming known as “The Time of Troubles.”

6. GREAT BRITAIN, 1782

Lord North
Lord North
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It's generally agreed that on March 20, 1782, Lord North became the first Prime Minister in British history to resign, following a vote of no confidence. His 12-year term had seen him lead Britain through much of the American Revolutionary War, but the American victory at Yorktown in October 1781 had damaged his standing beyond repair and he was forced from power. His successor, the Marquess of Rockingham, was appointed a week later and quickly sought to negotiate a peaceful end to the war and to recognize America’s independence. Negotiations began in Paris in April—but were halted when Rockingham died suddenly during a flu epidemic after just 14 weeks in power.

In his place, King George III himself appointed Rockingham’s Secretary of State, William Petty, the Earl of Shelburne, as Britain’s third Prime Minister in just five months.

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There’s an Invisible Tracking Code Embedded in the Documents You Print
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Every job contract, term paper, and yard sale flyer you’ve printed at home may have something in common. According to Quartz, several big-name printer companies have been embedding hidden tracking codes in documents for decades.

The practice is no secret: It was first called to the public’s attention by an article that ran on PCWorld in 2004. That report revealed that Xerox embeds sequences of tiny yellow dots on every sheet of paper that passes through one of their copiers or laser printers. Known as printer steganography, the clusters are staggered about an inch apart across the entire page, but with each circle spanning a millimeter in size they’re impossible to detect without the proper equipment. If they were blown up and made darker you’d be able to see an encoded message containing the serial number and manufacturing code of the source printer.

Unless you use your printer for illicit purposes, this likely isn’t something you need to worry about. The codes are there to make it easier for the Secret Service to track counterfeiters. "It's a trail back to you, like a license plate," Peter Crean, a former senior research fellow at Xerox, told PCWorld.

With the advent of the color printer came a new way for felons to forge money and legal documents. Coded dots were first used to combat this problem in Japan, and they became standard in Xerox color printers sold in America in the mid-1980s.

Printer manufacturers aren’t obligated to implement the technology by law, so there’s a chance it's missing from your computer. There’s also no law forcing companies to be upfront about this hidden feature, so if your printer does have it, it may be difficult to tell. One way to check is with a blue LED light and a magnifying glass: If the yellow dots show up you can be sure that page is traceable back to your printer, whether you mail it across the country or staple it to a telephone pole.

[h/t Quartz]

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