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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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The Tiny Government Office That Will Replace Your Ripped, Burned, and Chewed-Up Cash
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Cash is designed to be sturdier than regular paper, but it isn't indestructible. A fire, flood, or hungry pet could be all it takes to reduce your emergency savings to a ruined heap of scraps. But just because a bank will no longer accept that money doesn't mean it's worthless. As Great Big Story explains in the video below, there's an entire division of the U.S. Department of Treasury dedicated to reimbursing people for damaged cash.

The Mutilated Currency Division processes roughly 23,000 cases a year, paying out about $40 million annually to replace bills that are no longer fit for circulation. It accepts money in any condition—the only requirement is that the claim must include at least 51 percent of the original note, to avoid reimbursing someone twice for the same bill.

After someone submits a claim for damaged cash, the team examines the bills with scalpels, tweezers, knives, or whatever other tools are necessary to go through the stacks and verify just how much money is there. Bills arrive in varying states: Some have been clumped together and petrified by water, charred in ovens, or chewed up by insects. In one infamous case, a farmer sent in the whole stomach of the cow that had swallowed his wallet.

Once the office processes the claim, it issues a reimbursement check for that amount, and the unusable money is officially taken out of circulation. But the U.S. government finds other uses for that ruined cash. For example, over 4 tons of old currency are mulched at a farm in Delaware every day.

You can watch the full video from Great Big Story below to learn more.

[h/t Great Big Story]

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14 Secrets of TSA Agents
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John Moore/Getty Images

Last year, more than 964 million people boarded airplanes departing or arriving within the United States. Barring any special security clearance, virtually all of them were filtered through the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), a federally operated branch charged with screening passengers to ensure they’re complying with the rules of safe air travel.

Some travelers believe the TSA’s policies are burdensome and ineffectual; others acknowledge that individual employees are doing their best to conform to a frequently confusing, ever-changing set of procedures. We asked some former TSA officers about their experiences, and here’s what they had to say about life in blue gloves.

1. CATS ARE THE REAL TERRORISTS.

Maine coon cat stepping out of a carrier
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According to Jason Harrington, who spent six years at O’Hare Airport as a Transportation Security Officer (TSO), rogue felines have created more havoc and confusion than any suspected criminal. “Cats are a nightmare,” he says. “They don’t want to come out of their carriers, they scratch and claw, and they don’t come when you call them.” A cat that’s made a break for it and who hasn’t been patted down to check for weapons is technically a security breach, which a TSA supervisor could use as justifiable cause to shut down an entire terminal.

Dogs, however, are no problem. “A pat down on a dog amounts to going over and petting them,” Harrington says. “That’s actually pleasant.”

2. THEY HAVE CODE WORDS FOR ATTRACTIVE (AND ANNOYING) PASSENGERS.

Because TSOs are usually in close proximity to passengers, some checkpoints develop a vocabulary of code words that allows them to speak freely without offending anyone. “Code talk for attractive females was the most common,” Harrington says. An employee might say “hotel papa” to alert others to an appealing traveler heading their way—the “h” is for “hot.” Others might assign a code number, like 39, and call it out. Harrington was also informed by a supervisor that he could signal for a prolonged screening for an annoying passenger if Harrington told him that the traveler was “very nice.”

3. FANCY HAIRDOS ARE A SECURITY RISK.

Any passenger coming through with an elaborate hairdo—either carefully braided hair or the kind of up-do found on women headed for a wedding—means additional inspection will be required, because piled-up hair can conceivably conceal a weapon.

“Just about anything can set off an anomaly in the head area, from braids to a scrunchie to a barrette to a bad hair day,” Harrington says. “And those body scanners are especially fussy when it comes to the head, giving false positives there more than any other area.”

4. THEY LIKE YOU BETTER WHEN YOU’RE EXHAUSTED.

A tired passenger in an airport
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“Tina”—a former TSO in the northeast who prefers not to use her real name—says that travelers taking evening flights are typically more cooperative than morning passengers. “People are actually much nastier when they’re flying out in the morning,” she says. “The really late-night travelers are the best ones to be around.” (Also on Tina’s naughty list: business travelers. “They’re generally meaner.”)

5. THEY SOMETIMES LIE ABOUT WHERE THEY WORK.

Because public criticism of the TSA is so pervasive, Harrington has found that many employees stretch the truth about where they work when asked. “If I had to admit it, I’d say I was working for the Department of Homeland Security,” he says. “When I made mention of that on Facebook, I got a ton of officers who said they did the same thing.”

6. CHEESE CAN LOOK JUST LIKE A BOMB.

Airport security personnel monitoring an x-ray monitor
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That giant wheel of cheese you’re bringing back from the holidays? It’s going to cause a lot of agitation among employees monitoring the x-ray machine. “A block of cheese is indistinguishable from C4,” Harrington says. “There is no difference on the screen. Meats, too. All organic products look orange on the display and similar to explosives.”

7. YOUR GENDER CAN CONFUSE THEM.

When a passenger enters a full-body scanner, the device operator hits a button to tell the unit whether it’s a he or she. It makes a difference, since a female passenger’s anatomy would raise a red flag when the machine expects to see male-only parts, and vice versa. If a person's gender isn’t easily ascertained on sight and a TSO guesses, a pair of breasts could initiate a delay. “The machines detect things under clothes, and if it doesn’t match what’s been pressed, it means a pat down,” Harrington says.

8. THEY DON’T DO THE SAME THING ALL DAY.

TSOs typically get assigned to different stations (ticket taker, x-ray operator, shouting-at-you-to-take-your-shoes-off officer) at the security checkpoint, and never for very long: 30 minutes is typically the limit before a new officer is brought in. According to Tina, the revolving schedule is to avoid employee error. “After 30 minutes, you may begin to miss things,” she says.

9. OPTING OUT GETS THEM ANNOYED.

Harrington’s security checkpoint had a code word for passengers who “opted out,” or refused to submit to the full-body scanners—they were “tulips,” and they proved to be an annoyance.

“It slows down the whole operation and a lot of guys would hate it,” he says. “Now that it’s millimeter [radio] waves and people still opt out, they get annoyed, thinking the passenger doesn’t even know what they’re opting out of.”

10. THEY’RE WRITING ON YOUR TICKET FOR TWO REASONS.

A TSA agent looking at a traveller's documents
John Moore/Getty Images

Policies can vary by airport, but generally, security officers sitting up front and checking tickets are looking for irregularities in your identification: If something causes them to be suspicious, they’ll write something on your ticket that would prompt a more thorough inspection. “They’ll also write their badge number and initials,” Tina says, “so the airline knows they’ve been through security when they board.”

11. “CREDIBLE THREATS” STRESS THEM OUT.

According to Tina, turnover rates for TSOs can be high, and that’s due in large part to the perpetual stress of preparing for a hazardous situation. “In 10 months’ time, we went through active shooter training three times,” she says. “Another time, we were told there was a credible threat against the airport and not to wear our uniforms to or from work.”

12. THEY HATE WHEN YOU ASK THEM TO CHANGE GLOVES.

“The most common complaint [from TSOs] is when passengers ask them to change their gloves before a pat down,” Harrington says,” because we change them all the time. We might have changed them just before getting to someone and passengers will still insist they use new ones in front of their face.”

13. IT’S REALLY HARD TO GET FIRED.

TSOs undergo regular training and performance reviews where they're expected to simulate a screening in a private room for supervisors. After two years, the probationary period is over, and employees are generally set. “They’d call it being a ‘made’ man or woman,” Harrington says, referring to the mafia term for acceptance. “It’s really hard to get fired at that point. The only way to lose your job would be to commit a crime.”

14. THEY DON’T GET AIRPORT PERKS.

As federal employees, TSOs don’t enjoy any perks from airlines: Accepting a gift could be cause for termination, according to Tina. “But there’s a loophole,” she says. “If you’re friends with a pilot or have a personal relationship with an airline employee, you can accept it.”

A version of this story originally ran in 2016.

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