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    The NSA Reportedly Tested Its Top Spyware on New Zealand

    Written by

    Derek Mead


    NSA headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland. Photo via

    The United States' war on its citizens' privacy has been so successful in the last decade that now even well-respected judges are stating that privacy is not a right. But it hasn't stopped there: with the cooperation of allied governments, the US reportedly tested its most sophisticated surveillance software on the citizens of friendly nations.

    As the FBI's complains about its "going dark" problem, the NSA long ago took internet surveillance by the horns, and outsourced the development of a billion-dollar program called Trailblazer, which was designed to sift through mountains of digital data and pull out actionable intelligence. Amidst budget overruns and massive breaches of privacy, Trailblazer was scrapped as a total failure.

    Curiously, the NSA's in-house attempt at developing the same massive data surveillance capability, called ThinThread, was hailed by a number of whistleblowers as far more successful and cost-effective. But because of a recent shift within the NSA towards outsourcing its highly secret, highly advanced work, Trailblazer—and its litany of contractors—won out. 

    That ThinThread was scrapped in favor of a more bloated, less successful project at the behest of cronies and contracters isn't a new story. But what is new is the allegations that ThinThread was actually tested in the wild—on the unsuspecting citizens of New Zealand.

    The claim first surfaced in a blockbuster report by Tim Shorrock in The Nation in March, which took a deep look at how cozy relationships between NSA officials and contractors led to ThinThread's axing. It's a fascinating look at how the NSA—one of the most secretive organizations in the US—shifted its development of surveillance technology away from its in-house skunkworks towards a bevy of expensive contractors.

    Shorrock's piece was then notable for the treatment of the NSA whistleblowers who raised flags about Trailblazer. Four men—Thomas Drake, William Binney, J. Kirk Wiebe and Edward Loomis—all came forward to discuss Trailblazer's massive cost overruns, failure to meet goals, and inherent privacy concerns. All four have since faced persistent legal harassment--a familiar part of the Obama administration's historic prosecution of whistleblowers.

    What was lost in the tale of government waste, whistleblower attacks, and rampant privacy violations—Trailblazer was designed to sift through as much electronic communication as possible, but only use what its algorithms deemed relevant—was the fact that its predecessor, ThinThread, was tested in the wild overseas.

    From page three of Shorrock's story, which I do suggest reading in full:

    The ThinThread prototype went live in the fall of 2000 and, according to my sources, was deployed at two top-secret NSA listening posts. One was the Yakima Research Station in Washington State, which gathers electronic communications from the Asia-Pacific region and the Middle East. The other was in Germany and focused primarily on Europe. It was also installed at Fort Meade. In addition, several allied foreign intelligence agencies were given the program to conduct lawful surveillance in their own corners of the world. Those recipients included Canada, Germany, Britain, Australia and New Zealand. 'ThinThread was basically operational,' says Binney. 'That’s why we proposed early deployment in January 2001.'

    After all of the other revelations from the piece, the sheer absurdity of the technology being tested in friendly nations—presumably who'd then want to use it on their own—has resurfaced thanks to a New Zealand Herald story published over the weekend. According to the piece, ThinThread was "lawful" because it was designed to anonymize the data it collected, which helped it circumvent laws preventing both the US and New Zealand governments from spying on their own citizens.

    Essentially, ThinThread sifted through the massive maelstrom of data created every day and pull out patterns that could be used to develop intelligence. It's incredibly sophisticated stuff and, according to whistleblowers, the key part that made it legal was the system's ability to keep data anonymous until a thread of data became significant enough to earn a warrant.

    Of course, whether or not ThinThread's privacy protections were actually used is up for debate. While the program is long defunct, what's truly appalling—aside from the whole cronyism thing that killed it—is that it appears ThinThread was tested on domestic citizens, which is a gross mischaracterization of the NSA's mission to spy only on foreign parties.

    The FBI may get much of the spotlight for winning the war on privacy, but with the NSA, it stopped being a contest long ago. And just think: whistleblowers say that ThinThread had better privacy protections than Trailblazer, the program the NSA eventually ended up throwing billions of dollars at before cancelling. If ThinThread and Trailblazer, two of the most sophisticated online surveillance tools ever developed, didn't pass muster, it's hard to imagine how thorough the NSA's data collecting abilities are now.