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Snowden's XKeyscore revelations challenged

Job ads for latest NSA horror ran in 2010

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Edward Snowden's latest revelations about NSA snooping, the Xkeyscore program, have quickly been called into question.

While The Guardian correctly identifies XKeyscore as being a search tool for NSA databases (providing what the outlet's Glenn Greenwald writes is an “ability to query the databases at any time”, which is pretty much what a database is for), Greenwald also conveys the impression that XKeyscore trawls all of America's communications in real time.

That interpretation of XKeyscore is now being disputed by American journalist Marc Ambinder. Writing for The Week, he professes the opinion that Greenwald has misunderstood the function and the power of the tool.

Ambinder, co-author with DB Grady (nom-de-plume of David Brown) of the January 2013 book Deep State: Inside the Government Secrecy Industry, says he and Grady had already documented XKeyscore. From their research, he says, it's clear that the program exists, is not as deep a secret as Greenwald believes – and that it's an organisational and search tool rather than a collection tool.

“XKeyscore is not a thing that DOES collecting; it's a series of user interfaces, backend databases, servers and software that selects certain types of metadata that the NSA has ALREADY collected using other methods. XKeyscore, as D.B. Grady and I reported in our book, is the worldwide base level database for such metadata”, Ambinder writes.

Ambinder also writes: “I quibble with the Guardian's description of the program as 'TOP SECRET.' The word is not secret; its association with the NSA is not secret; that the NSA collects bulk data on foreign targets is, well, probably classified, but at the SECRET level.”

The Register notes that XKeyscore's existence and some of its nature was described in 2010 in recruitment advertising on the K-Bar List, which describes itself as “a free veterans' employment network”.

Those advertisements describe XKeyscore as being “deployed worldwide” and “incorporated into production architecture and used by analysts on a 24/7/365 basis”. Signal intelligence experience was on the “preferred list”, since applicants had to have “experience working with DNI [digital network information – Ed] SIGINT systems and an understanding of SIGINT data flow”. Applicants needed TS/SCI (top secret / sensitive compartmented information) clearance. ®

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