A Running List of What We Know the NSA Can Do. So Far.

Friday, January 17, 2014 - 09:20 AM

National Security Agency (NSA) (Chris Hardie/flickr)

The trove of documents leaked by Edward Snowden has revealed the elaborate tricks the NSA can use to monitor communications and data around the world. Here, a running list of things we now know the NSA can do, based on media reports and other publicly available documents -- so far. If we missed any, let us know in the comments page or by tweeting @brianlehrer.

Audio Pt 1: Shane Harris, Senior Writer at Foreign Policy and author of The Watchers, joined Brian Lehrer on 1/20 to discuss the list and provide context. Audio available to stream and download above.

Audio Pt 2: Shane Harris returns on 4/8/14 to update the list.

  • It can track the numbers of both parties on a phone call, as well location, time and duration. (More)
  • It can hack Chinese phones and text messages. (More)
  • It can set up fake internet cafes. (More)
  • It can spy on foreign leaders' cell phones. (More)
  • It can tap underwater fiber-optic cables. (Clarification: Shane Harris explains that there were reports the NSA was trying to tap directly into cables using submarines, but is now more likely trying to intercept information once it has reached land.) (More)
  • It can track communication within media organizations like Al Jazeera. (More)
  • It can hack into the UN video conferencing system. (More)
  • It can track bank transactions. (More)
  • It can monitor text messages. (More)
  • It can access your email, chat, and web browsing history. (More)
  • It can map your social networks. (More)
  • It can access your smartphone app data. (More)
  • It is trying to get into secret networks like Tor, diverting users to less secure channels. (More)
  • It can go undercover within embassies to have closer access to foreign networks. (More)
  • It can set up listening posts on the roofs of buildings to monitor communications in a city. (More)
  • It can set up a fake LinkedIn. (More)
  • It can track the reservations at upscale hotels. (More)
  • It can intercept the talking points for Ban Ki-moon’s meeting with Obama. (More)
  • It can crack cellphone encryption codes. (More)
  • It can hack computers that aren’t connected to the internet using radio waves. (Update: Clarification -- the NSA can access offline computers through radio waves on which it has already installed hidden devices.) (More)
  • It can intercept phone calls by setting up fake base stations. (More)
  • It can remotely access a computer by setting up a fake wireless connection. (More)
  • It can install fake SIM cards to then control a cell phone. (More)
  • It can fake a USB thumb drive that's actually a monitoring device. (More)
  • It can crack all types of sophisticated computer encryption. (Update: It is trying to build this capability.) (More)
  • It can go into online games and monitor communication. (More)
  • It can intercept communications between aircraft and airports. (More)
  • (Update 1/18) It can physically intercept deliveries, open packages, and make changes to devices. (More) (h/t)
  • (Update 1/18) It can tap into the links between Google and Yahoo data centers to collect email and other data. (More) (h/t)
  • (Update 4/2) It can monitor, in real-time, Youtube views and Facebook "Likes." (More)
  • (Update 4/2) It can monitor online behavior through free Wi-Fi at Canadian airports. (More)
  • (Update 4/2) It can shut down chat rooms used by Anonymous and identify Anonymous members. (More)
  • (Update 4/2) It can use real-time data to help identify and locate targets for US drone strikes. (More)
  • (Update 4/2) It can collect the IP addresses of visitors to the Wikileaks website. (More)
  • (Update 4/2) It can spy on US law firms representing foreign countries in trade negotiations. (More)
  • (Update 4/2) It can post false information on the Internet in order to hurt the reputation of targets. (More)
  • (Update 4/2) It can intercept and store webcam images. (More)
  • (Update 4/2) It can record phone calls and replay them up to a month later. (More)
  • (Update 6/2) It can harvest images from emails, texts, videoconferencing and more and feed it into facial recognition software. (More)

Did we miss any? Mischaracterize any capabilities? Let us know in the comments, or tweet @brianlehrer.


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Comments [53]

Tom from Rhode Island

On a targeted cell phone, even if off, it can turn it on, then use the microphone and/or camera to catch a live feed. It can do this on nearly all phones in the US and Europe today. There is no notice to the owner except faster-than-normal battery depletion.
It can intercept and record all cell phone conversations. Those conversations are then sent through voice recognition software to generate the dialogue text of both parties. That text is then sent through filters to pick up key words. All automatically and if a threshold is met, cue an operator review. Non-English automatically is translated with varying success based on the language and dialect.
The same process is done for all international calls (landline and cell) and all skype feeds. All satellite calls through US satellites are also monitored.
All postal mail is scanned/photographed and generates to/from links.

Jun. 12 2014 06:10 PM
Jacob from Tennessee

I have no objections that the NSA is capable of the things it has been accused of. The United States needs eyes and ears to monitor its citizens and the rest of the world. Do we really need a United States that is blind and deaf?

May. 19 2014 12:53 AM
Robert Huber from Minnesota

I do believe someone at one of the intelligence agencies are being naughty with cell phones.

Apr. 15 2014 02:04 AM

Two events that this reporting leads me to think that the clock is ticking on....

Bad actors using a cell phone to target an enemy for action by a U.S. drone strike - Just like our hunt for terrorists (aka GWOT) was used to settle old scores rather than actually round up terrorists. Heck, our own mechanisms could potentially be prank'd into offing our own people.

A DIY drone is used in an act of domestic terror. Nothing sophisticated but very, very scary.

Apr. 08 2014 10:50 AM
Amy from Manhattan

If the NSA can turn the camera on on your computer, can they also turn *off* the light that indicates the camera's on, so you can't tell?

Apr. 08 2014 10:47 AM

Samantha from Lynchburg VA makes an excellent point. It's one thing to note all of the capabilities of the NSA, but it's another to identify their inappropriate use. If we entrust that our judicial system functions legally, then the NSA must obtain the legal authority to exercise these abilities under certain circumstances.

It's rather sensational to say "The NSA can read all of your e-mail and know exactly what you are doing", when in fact the NSA has far more dire interests to investigate. I do agree about the prospects of precedent. We don't want the NSA to easily become rogue whenever they see fit. As long as they are legally bound to be compliant to regulatory policies with public data they've collected, we shouldn't worry. And of course, if there is a breach, it must be fully documented and the guilty sufficiently punished. Part of the problem is that punishment has been rather anemic relative to the gravity of the violations.

Feb. 24 2014 03:05 PM
Samantha from Lynchburg, VA

Yes, the NSA has the ability to do all of these things. Obviously, they wouldn't be the world's best intelligence agency if they did not have those capabilities. However, having the ability and actually using these technologies in illegal ways, are two different things. There are several things that the American people need to understand that has not been explained by our stupid media. Firstly, NSA employees are required to take an oath to protect and defend our country and the Constitution, just like anyone in the military. And they take that oath very seriously. Secondly, the NSA has more oversight and restrictions than any other American intelligence agency. They are only allowed to analyze and use data collected on foreign soil, unless the FBI explicitly asks for their help and they have a warrant based on probable cause, which is no different than when local law enforcement collects evidence against suspects. Americans should really be more worried about the activities and capabilities of other agencies. For example, the CIA has much less outside accountability than the NSA and much more autonomy, so they would be able to get away with violating the privacy and rights of American citizens more easily than the NSA ever could. The NSA is under the oversight of the Department of Defense and the office of the DNI, and a large percentage of their workforce is actually military. The CIA, on the other hand, is an independent agency with the only accountability being to the DNI, and its workforce is completely civilian. The CIA is supposed to be a purely foreign intelligence agency, like the NSA, but, because it does not have the same checks and balances as the NSA, it is more open to being used in an underhanded and unconstitutional manner right here on American soil.

Feb. 22 2014 05:36 AM
Richard508nyc from Manhattan NYC

Does anyone remember the conclusion drawn by the Intelligence agencies
and the 9-11 Commission ? Everyone agreed that we were too dependent
on electronic surveillance and that a return to an approach of actual human intel gathered from first hand accounts and vetted inside sources
was always more efficient. I guess the amount of profit to be made and the willingness of an ever docile public to submit to the "NSA Way" cancels out the intelligence community's own advice...

Jan. 28 2014 04:14 PM
Sally from Australia

Brian has recently asserted, on more than one occasion, that Edward Snowden forfeited his moral status as a whistleblower by releasing far, far more than the material he had obtained relating to the bulk data collection programs. Now he is merrily broadcasting some of this additional information about diverse NSA activities. You can’t have it both ways: if you think it was wrong to release this additional material, don’t exploit it for your program. For what it’s worth, I think it’s great that all of it is out in the public.

Jan. 22 2014 06:18 PM

The only way to stop this is for everyone to go to their Internet service Providers, phone companies, social media businesses, and retailers and tell them they are cancelling all their accounts until this surveillance of the entire population is ended. Only these businesses can influence Government policy becuase the average person doesn't count. Recently, Microsoft and other online businesses did go to Washington to express concern because they know people will drop their services if this continues.

Why don't we have a conservative outcry about this abolishment of the 4th Amendment?

We know from history this information will be used for reasons other than those given. J. Edgar Hoover and the Government spied on whoever they wanted, particularly political dissidents - now everyone is tracked all the time.

Jan. 22 2014 12:43 PM
Amy from Manhattan

I think the needle-in-a-haystack metaphor isn't a very good fit. As someone pointed out, most haystacks don't even have a needle in them.

Jan. 22 2014 11:18 AM
Orin from Queens

If the Guardian, etc. are holding back documents that we have a right to know, I would say it is primarily the obligation of our government to release this information. They have the primary duty to inform us, not the media. In fact they should have already told us much of what has been revealed. Since we know they won't release such documents even knowing that Snowden already gave them out, we know that the government is not defending the public interest, only their own behinds.

Jan. 22 2014 10:50 AM
mike from nyc


The US has been tapping subsea comms lines since WWII and the Cold war tats nothing new at all.

FWIW we LOST TRACK of BIN LADEN when reporting was made public that NSA/CIA were tracking his cell phone and revealed to ALL TERRORISTS that we had this capability and it has since followed that cell phone tracking is no longer effective as it was due to the fact that terrorists and malevolent actors no longer use them to communicate. So this type of reporting has ruined on elf the most effective tools we ever had for monitoring and surveilling people we need to find. Reckless and foolish given events like 9/11 no?

Jan. 22 2014 10:44 AM

So let's just shut the NSA down.
Let's shut the CIA down.
Let's just reduce the State Department to a Travel Agency...because that REALLY what most Americans THINK the State Department's job is...

And then everybody just go about their lives...and let's not hear one squeak or scream if a bomb goes off. Because if the bomb doesn't hit YOUR neighborhood, then it's not a problem.

Life is Complicated, People.

Jan. 22 2014 10:42 AM
foodaggro from Brooklyn

This has got to be the stupidest debate in history. Without spying we'd be speaking German or Russian for the last century.

Jan. 22 2014 10:37 AM
mike from BKNY

PS - sorry for all the typos.. I hate spell correct with equal passion

Jan. 22 2014 10:36 AM

Handing anonymous tips to DEA and the FBI is the one item that worries me most about the NSA's broad net for sniffing up our data. If this metadata is used to initiate eventual prosecutions, this is MOST DEFINITELY a case of illegal search and seizure. Sooner or later some smart defense attorney is going to get an otherwise guilty client off if this initial overreach can be proven. But how could it be proven when the methods are confidential? So Big Brother is watching. Too scary.

Jan. 22 2014 10:35 AM
Tamar Smith from Brooklyn, NY

Hmmm, maybe the NSA should have designed the Affordable Care Act website…. just an idea!

Jan. 22 2014 10:34 AM

It seem to me that the NSA has evolved from a useful public serviceperson into a demented hoarder, who collects everything without knowing what to do with it all.

If anyone has seen the show "Hoarders," its really not too far of a stretch to make the analogy.

Jan. 22 2014 10:33 AM
mike from brooklyn

Hey guess what Brian? Good intelligence actually AVOIDS conflict and problems by avoiding misunderstanding and guessing at outer countries intentions as well as preempting or prediction aggression on the part of our adversaries be they independent operators or nations. Why is this NEVR mentioned?? You have no idea how impressed and proud you should be of the fact that we are LUCKY enough to be at the cutting edge instead of constantly trying to dull the knife out of fear of modernity and paranoia, misplaced morality and ignorance. Would you rather live in a world dominated by China or Russia or anarchy???? Why is there never any depth to these debates?

Jan. 22 2014 10:33 AM
Mike Koen from Austin, Texas

A list of what they 'cannot' might be a little more manageable.

Jan. 22 2014 10:31 AM

Wondering if this is how they caught general petraeus?

Jan. 22 2014 10:29 AM
genejoke from Brooklyn

Puh-lease. Are we supposed to be shocked? Surprised? I've always assumed the NSA would be doing any or all of these things in the name of homeland security. Maybe they've taken it a little too far, but some of this is necessary and should be kept under wraps so we can protect ourselves.

Anyway, any teenage hacker/tech geek can do any of these things.

Jan. 22 2014 10:27 AM
Jim B from Queens

Edward Snowden worked for Booz Allen Hamilton Inc.
Booz Allen Hamilton has two businesses.
Defense contractor and business services.
Booz is owned by a a big private equity firm.
Business and Political Intelligence is one of the fastest growing industries.
Temptation to mine data collected to 'prevent terrorism' and turn it in to for profit products and insider tips must be overwhelming. What if you knew ( X ) a few minutes ahead of the market or ( Y ) was changing.

Jan. 22 2014 08:20 AM
Lou from ask NSA


o NSA cannot reveal message one of the "secure" network the NWO is using to engineer terrorism worldwide

o NSA cannot reveal the millions of transmissions it has on 9/11

o NSA cannot reveal the billions of transmissions it has on the 200 top military commanders our so called president has fired

In short NSA is not working for us just as most of the Federal Government at the highest political levels is not working for us.

NSA is working for the NWO who is behind most of the terrorism. NSA is building a complete data base on each and every person in this world that will form the purported basis for the "pre-crime laws" that will purportedly stop the "terrorism" while eliminating all those who oppose the NWO.

Jan. 21 2014 01:22 PM
MNJohn from Minnesota

Anyone that has been paying attention over the past 50+ years has known (or should have known) some of the capabilities developed by US citizens, then offered to and accepted by the US security people. It's the fruit of the once mysterious response to a metal key tied to a kite string in the 18th century.

If a butterfly flutters its wings in Beijing, we'll get a storm in Des Moines, Iowa sometime later.

Jan. 21 2014 09:27 AM

@I want to break free ,
Switzerland pretty much the unique position of being the only direct democracy in the world, meaning the people actually have real leverage over the government and thus are a real check on its power.
A lot of Republicans like to scoff that Direct Democracy is the tyranny of the majority,.. what they fail to realise is that every "Republic" to date has been the tyranny of a minority in congress/parliament.

Jan. 21 2014 02:42 AM
John Bell from Oak Ridge, TN

I would argue that there is one more item to come which has not been disclosed:
If you think the NSA is NOT recording the CONTENT of your telephone calls (just like your e-mail and texts), you are dumber than you look.

Connecting members of networks is one use of phone metadata, but it also allows the NSA to pick out which conversations to actually listen to. (I don't think they have enough computing power to analyze all of the voice traffic over American networks, but they most certainly covet that!)

Jan. 20 2014 11:41 AM
John Bell from Oak Ridge, TN

I would argue that there is one more item to come which has not been disclosed:
If you think the NSA is NOT recording the CONTENT of your telephone calls (just like your e-mail and texts), you are dumber than you look.

Connecting members of networks is one use of phone metadata, but it also allows the NSA to pick out which conversations to actually listen to. (I don't think they have enough computing power to analyze all of the voice traffic over American networks, but they most certainly covet that!)

Jan. 20 2014 11:40 AM
paulmd199 from The NSA knows where I am

Missing the ANGRYNEIGHBOR family of RF retro reflectors. These are a bit scary. Not the bugs themselves, but the continuous wave generator, the CTX-4000 or PHOTOANGLO that is used to communicate with them. The signal strength can be up to 1kw, at microwave frequencies (1-4ghz, your microwave oven uses 2.5ghz).

These are discussed by Appelbaum's "to protect and infect" lecture at 30c3 (last item), and also his Der Spiegel article.

To pick an example not at random, some poor clerks at the Brazilian and Indian embassies had their monitor cables bugged (VAGRANT), and were exposed to this. Who knows for how long, or at what distance and strength.

Got Cancer?


Jan. 20 2014 10:38 AM
fuva from harlemworld

Jody, thanks a lot for this.

Jan. 20 2014 10:23 AM

Of course the NSA's job is made much easier by the fact they can use secret court orders to strong arm communications companies into complying with them and granting them various back doors into their networks and hardware.

What's needed is for communications companies to set up servers in international waters and route traffic via satellite so that none of their infrastructure is in the jurisdiction of control freak governments.
Laser pinpointing can be used between satellites and rooftop receivers of individual customers, this pinpointing(unlike broadcasting) makes it very diificult for NSA receivers to intercept signals.
The pinpointing could be used occasionally by customers to download a few gigabytes of OTP encryption, which can then be used in standard broadcast fashion as an uncrackable communication, except by the communications provider who has a copy of the OTP on their server in international waters.

Jan. 20 2014 09:25 AM
Bassmann from Kentucky

So they know I've been watching porn??

Jan. 20 2014 04:42 AM
I want to break free

For a way out of this madness, see

Also, make sure you check legislations. Although the title seems to say the opposite, Switzerland looks like the best choice right now:

Jan. 20 2014 04:27 AM
the_randomizer from USA

I bet those who voted for Okama are kicking themselves now. And to the NSA, piss off.

Jan. 20 2014 01:13 AM
Naeteeri Wyns

It can do all of this with impunity and the full, albeit ignorant, support of all houses of government and the people.

If we start a list of what it can't do, we should start with "it can't honor the spirit and intent of the Constitution of the United States of America.

Jan. 19 2014 08:21 PM
Cindy from Seattle, WA

Great piece, Jody. I'm wondering what this all means for at the connected car. I'm actually finding it difficult to purchase a new car that is not run by a computer and fully connected. I don't want connectivity - cameras the help me drive, car serving as my phone, computer and map. How much of stretch is it that NSA will be accessing those cameras and other devices built into my car. Would love to learn more.

Jan. 19 2014 06:15 PM

include acoustics attacks please

Jan. 19 2014 07:59 AM
Eddie G from Yum fun

Time to buy a Homing Pigeon.

Jan. 19 2014 07:53 AM
Rob Raley

Thank the troops for protecting your freedom!

Jan. 19 2014 07:25 AM
BrandF from NYNY

The NSA can provide you with a handy 50 page catalog of the all the devices they've coerced hardware manufacturers to install backdoors into.

Jan. 18 2014 10:29 AM
Geoff Speakman from Brisbane, Australia.

I don't mind them listening to what we're saying, as long as what we're saying is true, just and reasonable. In fact, by listening to alternative opinions, they might become better people themselves.

Jan. 18 2014 07:37 AM
Broseidon from Hell, Norway

@DanT, they do have the ability to crack all kinda of crypto, insofar as they successfully strongarmed major services providers (see RSA,etc)to weakening crypto algorithms used in their so-called "security" products & services.

Secondly, even 4,096 bit diffie-helman key exchanges matter not, when the govt can simply go to certificate authorities & demand they hand over the encryption keys


Jan. 18 2014 02:05 AM

@Eli Thanks - we've clarified.

Jan. 17 2014 10:21 PM
John Wildanger from LA

I was selected for being searched the first four times I flew after the US invaded Iraq post-9/11. In each situation, I could not print the boarding pass at home, when I printed it at the airport it had "SSSS" on it and when I showed it to the screeners at the airport, they used a yellow marker to highlight that text. Then I was searched when I went through security.

The only reason I could think of for this was my vocal opposition to the war which I had talked to people about. I personally think in addition to recording phone calls, the NSA has software that listens for key phrases and if something comes up, the calls are then personally listened to.

Jan. 17 2014 08:09 PM
Eli from Washington, DC

The NSA can't really "hack" computers via radio waves... The radio waves are just a clever way of accessing computers that they have *already* hacked by installing a hidden circuit board or USB device.

Jan. 17 2014 06:59 PM

@mason Thanks for the clarification about scanners and airports. Here's the relevant passage from the NYTimes article we cited:

"Working closely with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, which handles satellite photography, as well as G.C.H.Q., the N.S.A. team studied the Iranian leader’s entourage, its vehicles and its weaponry from satellites, and intercepted air traffic messages as planes and helicopters took off and landed."

Jan. 17 2014 03:41 PM

It can intercept communications between aircraft and airports. [more]

So can anyone with a radio scanner.

Also, the link that you link to for that item doesn't actually say anything about that.

Jan. 17 2014 03:23 PM

@Truth&Beauty - we didn't remove a comment, just moved it to the thread about today's NSA announcement, since that's what it was addressing. Apologies if we were mistaken.

Jan. 17 2014 03:22 PM
upset citizen from up your ass

To bad the one thing they can't do is their job efficiently or without breaking peoples rights, but hey their subverting of the constitution and taking away our freedoms to protect us from people who don't vale constitution values and take peoples rights away? :/

Jan. 17 2014 03:06 PM
Truth & Beauty from Brooklyn

SCREENER: Why have you twice posted my comments and then removed them?

Jan. 17 2014 01:11 PM

You're right, DanT - we've updated the language accordingly.

Jan. 17 2014 10:57 AM

You are certainly mis characterizing with the statement "it can crack all types of encryption." If it could do that many of the other revelations related to back dooring would be uneccesary. See your own reference article "But the spy agency is apparently far from achieving a breakthrough in creating a "cryptologically useful quantum computer,"

Jan. 17 2014 10:39 AM

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