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    Hello, NSA

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    An NSA SIGINT station at Sugar Grove, West Virginia (via)

    Presenting Hello, NSA, an app for sharing your thoughts with the world, using keywords the government is listening for.

    Thanks to recent revelations, we now know a little bit more about a secret wiretapping program that the National Security Agency is using to analyze and collect personal data from Americans and others. Our tweets and status updates already reveal a lot, but the government can gain access to our emails and other private communication without our knowledge, under programs that are operated in secret. The NSA has been collecting our call records, and in certain cases, it’s been monitoring our emails, snooping our Skypes, and scanning our updates. 

    Although the NSA is supposed to only target foreign communications that relate to national security, we’ve been hearing about domestic spying online since at least 2005. Yet even now, we're still not exactly sure how the NSA works with America's large Internet firms, and how it sifts through all this really big data.

    But directives from the Department of Homeland Security may offer some clues. Last year, in response to a Freedom of Information request, the DHS revealed the list of 374 keywords and search terms that it monitors as part of its "Publicly Available Social Media Monitoring and Situational Awareness Initiative." Those “sensitive” terms included terrorist buzzwords (dirty bomb), hacking terms (phreaking), infrastructure descriptors (bridge, airport), health (pandemic, flu), places (Mexico, Somalia), and political dissent (radical). The list also includes more banal, common verbiage like ‘pork’ and ‘stuck’ and 'mudslide.' The Electronic Privacy Information Center, which filed the lawsuit against the DHS, wrote a letter to Congress, describing the department's choice of words as ‘broad, vague and ambiguous.'

    The focus of the program, according to DHS, is to track emergent incidents -- to keep tabs on threats to the homeland at any given time. Personal information is scrubbed from the data collected, except in“extremis situations,” "when there is an imminent threat of loss of life, serious bodily harm, or damage/destruction to critical facilities or equipment." 

    Last year, an in-house “Privacy Compliance Review" cited some of the cases where tweets and messages were “monitored” by the DHS at its National Operations Center. During a power outage, for instance:

    According to the DHS's own report, then, we know it "monitored" the following tweet.

    Other reports disclosed social media surveillance of extreme weather events, traffic jams, terrorist attacks, earthquakes, and road flooding in Louisiana: 

    No such list has yet been revealed in the trove of classified information that Snowden has shared with the public. However, a separate British monitoring program he revealed searches Internet communication for "selectors," which are search terms, subjects, phone numbers and email addresses of interest  (there were 70,000 in all). The point is clear: the watchers are watching everything. And almost anyone or anything could be considered suspicious—even if you're just, say, tweeting about that delicious pork sandwich you ate in Mexico City.

    Of course, computational ecology experts have pointed out that even the most advanced such system is liable to highlight 10,000 false positives for every one genuine "hit." So if we assume that the NSA is keeping a similar list of keywords on file to help it determine when communications with "foreign entities" contains potentially dangerous content. That means that every day, millions of harmless messages that happen to contain said keywords are getting flagged—and potentially stored by the NSA. In the intelligence community, this collection of innocent, sometimes domestic data is called "incidental collection." While that kind of data collection has long been a sticky legal issue for agencies like the NSA, current technological abilities (think of the classified computer in Tennessee, or a massive new data center in Utah) mean that incidental or not, data about who we talk to and we say has never been collected quite like this.

    So, allow us to introduce our own bit of software: Hello, NSA. It's much simpler. Every time you click the button, Hello, NSA will randomly generate a completely innocuous sentence loaded with keywords our spies might find suspicious. Tweet it out, share it, or email it to a friend, and you can be reasonably certain that somewhere, the government is reading along.

    As an added bonus, leave your own phrases in the comments below (again, the keywords are here)—it's Facebook, so the NSA will probably see it. If it's good, we'll upload it into our generator.

    Now, we're not sure which messages the NSA, the DHS, or any government agency will flag and which they won't; and we know this a hugely imperfect exercise. But the point is that digital snooping is an imprecise and invasive practice, and that plenty of our private and public communications could easily be ending up in the wrong column of some government Excel sheet. Using simply our metadata, former NSA employees have suggested that the government is capable of compiling dossier-like records on millions of Americans. That--and the revelations that large Internet companies were secretly cooperating with the government--should not be surprising: these companies already keep extensive records on us, who are protected often by little more than the terms of service we agree to when signing up for "free" email, social networks and media.

    Entrance to the NSA signals station in Hawaii where Edward Snowden reportedly worked, via Google Street View.

    If you think it's inappropriate that someone else read along if you email your friends with the wrong language, you're not alone. The NSA dragnet has severe implications for how much privacy we'll expect to have from the state (and others) as we head into the future. Then again, you would be contending with a majority of Americans who think that phone record surveillance is okay, and 45% who find email surveillance acceptable. But an important public debate about this can't happen as long as we the people remain in the dark.

    The risk of living under a system where you always feels watched, as Ai Weiwei put it, is that it's hard to feel free. The United States certainly doesn't have a monopoly on secret surveillance but it often imagines itself as a model for public, open democracy. Surveillance isn't the only threat to us as citizens; secrecy endangers the trust that democracy rests on, the trust we would like to place in our governments and in the companies that store our data. Our data isn't trivial; it's so valuable in fact that leaking information about its secret capture is enough to warrant charges of treason. We hope for serious dialogue about privacy and technology, and we urge the government to stop watching us like this. Until then, here's to indulging the system with its own absurdity, giving it everything it wants and more, letting it all out in the open.

    So feel free to use our Hello NSA app to let the world know what you're thinking about; you may even get a new follower in Washington. Just don't forget to say hello. :)

    More on privacy, security, and the NSA

    How to Build a Secret Facebook

    The Motherboard Guide to Avoiding the NSA

    Privacy's Public, Government-Sponsored Death

    A Majority of Americans Believe NSA Phone Tracking Is Acceptable

    'Going Dark': What's So Wrong with the FBI's Plan to Tap Our Internet? 

    A Photo History of the NSA from its Own Secret Archives

    Here Are Nine Top Secret NSA Memes

    Surveillance for All: Foreign Governments' Responses to the PRISM Scandal Are Telling

    All the PRISM Data the Tech Giants Have Been Allowed to Disclose So Far

    Sorry, NSA, Terrorists Don't Use Verizon. Or Skype. Or Gmail