Snowden Leak Reveals NSA Traffic Shaping Tech That Diverts US Internet Routing For Spying

Geopolitical borders have softened in various ways thanks to the prevalence of the Internet. An email sent by an American could cross multiple international borders before being received by another American. A recent study by the Century Foundation revealed that the National Security Agency (NSA) reportedly utilizes various “traffic shaping” techniques to survey and store American communications.

Internet traffic does not travel along the shortest route, but instead favors the fastest, least congested, or least expensive course. Data from various countries is backed up in data centers around the world. Sharon Goldberg of the Century Foundation noted, “An email sent from San Jose to New York may be routed through Internet devices located in Frankfurt, or be backed up on computers located in Ireland.” The NSA could potentially reroute Internet communications to gather information.

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NSA Headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland; Image from: Wikimedia Commons

A NSA document from 2007 leaked by Edward Snowden, used Yemen as an example for “traffic shaping”. Yemen is often regarded as a gathering place for extremist activity. There are few ways for the NSA to inconspicuously monitor the Internet traffic within the country itself. The agency, however, is able to reroute the communications through undersea cables that pass through “friendlier territory”.

The NSA is responsible for monitoring and processing data for foreign intelligence and counterintelligence purposes. American citizens are generally protected by the 4th Amendment and the rules of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance (FISA) Court. Executive Order 12333, however, allows the collection, retention, and dissemination of information, “obtained in the course of a lawful foreign intelligence, counterintelligence, international narcotics or international terrorism investigation” or “incidentally obtained information that may indicate involvement in activities that may violate federal, state, local or foreign laws”.

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E.O.12333 is only under the watch of the executive and is not subject to the review of the legislative or judicial branches. Many claim that this law is used when other surveillance laws do not reach far enough for the intelligence agencies. It also implies that information collected about Americans through overseas communication could technically be legal.

It is important to note that this study was largely speculation. An NSA spokesperson remarked, “We do not comment on speculation about foreign intelligence activities; however, as we have said before, the National Security Agency does not undertake any foreign intelligence activity that would circumvent US laws or privacy protections.”

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