(Updated: January 23, 2017)
Over the last months, a number of European newspapers published screenshots from an NSA tool codenamed BOUNDLESSINFORMANT, which were said to show the number of data that NSA collected from those countries.
Most recently, a dispute about the numbers mentioned in a screenshot about Norway urged Snowden-journalist Glenn Greenwald to publish a similar screenshot about Afghanistan. But as this article will show, Greenwald's interpretation of the latter was wrong, which also raises new questions about how to make sense out of the screenshots about other countries.
Norway vs Afghanistan
On November 19, the website of the Norwegian tabloid Dagbladet published a BOUNDLESSINFORMANT screenshot which, according to the paper, showed that NSA apparently monitored 33 million Norwegian phone calls (although actually, the NSA tool only presents metadata).
The report by Dagbladet was almost immediatly corrected by the Norwegian military intelligence agency Etteretningstjenesten (or E-tjenesten), which said that they collected the data "to support Norwegian military operations in conflict areas abroad, or connected to the fight against terrorism, also abroad" and that "this was not data collection from Norway against Norway, but Norwegian data collection that is shared with the Americans".
Earlier, a very similar explanation was given about the data from France, Spain and Germany. They too were said to be collected by French, Spanish and German intelligence agencies outside their borders, like in war zones, and then shared with NSA. Director Alexander added that these data were from a system that contained phone records collected by the US and NATO countries "in defense of our countries and in support of military operations".
Glenn Greenwald strongly contradicted this explanation in an article written for Dagbladet on November 22. In trying to prove his argument, he also released a screenshot from BOUNDLESSINFORMANT about Afghanistan (shown down below) and explained it as follows:
"What it shows is that the NSA collects on average of 1.2-1.5 million calls per day from that country: a small subset of the total collected by the NSA for Spain (4 million/day) and Norway (1.2 million).
Clearly, the NSA counts the communications it collects from Afghanistan in the slide labeled «Afghanistan» — not the slides labeled «Spain» or «Norway». Moreover, it is impossible that the slide labeled «Spain» and the slide labeled «Norway» only show communications collected from Afghanistan because the total collected from Afghanistan is so much less than the total collected from Spain and Norway."
But Greenwald apparently forgot some documents he released earlier:
Last September, the Indian paper The Hindu published three less known versions of the BOUNDLESSINFORMANT global overview page, showing the total amounts of data sorted in three different ways: Aggregate, DNI and DNR. Each results in a slightly different top 5 of countries, which is also reflected in the colors of the heat map.
In the overall (aggregated) counting, Afghanistan is in the second place, with a total amount of over 2 billion internet records (DNI) and almost 22 billion telephony records (DNR) counted:
The screenshot about Afghanistan published by Greenwald only shows information about some 35 million telephony (DNR) records, collected by a facility only known by its SIGAD US-962A5 and processed or analysed by DRTBox. This number is just a tiny fraction of the billions of data from both internet and telephone communications from Afghanistan as listed in the global overview.
With these big differences, it's clear that this screenshot about Afghanistan is not showing all data which NSA collected from that country, not even all telephony data. The most likely option is that it only shows metadata from telephone communications intercepted by the facility designated US-962A5.
That fits the fact that this SIGAD denotes a sub- or even sub-sub-facility of US-962, which means there are more locations under this collection program. Afghanistan is undoubtedly being monitored by numerous SIGINT collection stations and facilities (like US-3217, codenamed SHIFTINGSHADOW which targets the MTN Afghanistan and Roshan GSM telecommunication companies), so seeing only one SIGAD in this screenshot proves that it can never show the whole collection from that country.
This makes that Greenwald's argument against the data being collected abroad is not valid anymore (although there maybe other arguments against it). Glenn Greenwald was asked via Twitter to comment on the findings of this article, but there was no reaction.
The new insight about the Afghanistan data means that the interpretation of the screenshots about other countries can be wrong too. Especially those showing only one collection facility, like France, Spain and Norway (and maybe also Italy and The Netherlands), might not be showing information about that specific country, but maybe only about the specific intercept location.
This also leads to other questions, like: are this really screenshots (why is there no classification marking)? Are they part of other documents or did Snowden himself made them? And how did he make the selection: by country, by facility, or otherwise?
There are many questions about NSA capabilities and operations which Snowden cannot answer, but he can answer how exactly he got to these documents and what their proper context is. Maybe Glenn Greenwald also knows more about this, and if so, it's about time to tell that part of the story too.
During a hearing of the German parliamentary investigation commission on January 19, 2017, former BND president Schindler said that the BOUNDLESSINFORMANT charts that Snowden took, were from training course material. This was said here for the first time and given the problems these charts caused for BND, it's possible that they asked NSA for more details after which this explanation came up. However, this still doesn't explains why the charts were interpreted incorrectly.
> See also: The BOUNDLESSINFORMANT interface
Links and Sources
- Le Monde/BugBrother: La NSA n’espionne pas tant la France que ça
- Volkskrant.nl: Bespioneerde de NSA ons of hebben wij zelf afgeluisterd?
- MatthewAid.com: Greenwald’s Interpretation of BOUNDLESSINFORMANT NSA Documents Is Oftentimes Wrong
- Dagbladet.no: NSA-files repeatedly show collection of data «against countries» - not «from»
- WSJ.com: Europeans Shared Spy Data With U.S.
- Cryptome.org: Some thoughts and explanations about the BOUNDLESSINFORMANT numbers