Meet the NSA’s New Data Centers: Russia, China, and Venezuela

Here’s something the National Security Agency probably isn’t happy to find in Edward Snowden’s latest revelation about its activities: The surprising locations of the servers that make up the program X-KEYSCORE, which, according to one leaked agency presentation, has the ability to vacuum up nearly every move a user makes on the Internet. Those locations ...

The Guardian
The Guardian
The Guardian

Here's something the National Security Agency probably isn't happy to find in Edward Snowden's latest revelation about its activities: The surprising locations of the servers that make up the program X-KEYSCORE, which, according to one leaked agency presentation, has the ability to vacuum up nearly every move a user makes on the Internet.

Those locations reportedly include China, Ecuador, Russia, Sudan, and Venezuela. In short, the NSA has managed to either place or gain access to servers in a collection of countries that are deeply hostile to the United States. Put another way, computer technicians in every one of those countries are probably combing through their systems right now to figure out ways to boot out the NSA.

The image at the top of this post comes from Wednesday's Guardian story on X-KEYSCORE, which includes a set of slides described as internal NSA training material. The slide in question says that the program includes roughly 150 sites around the world and spans some 700 servers. The Guardian's coverage does not make entirely clear how the program works, but the report seems to outline a system that perches on top of communications infrastructure and sucks up streams of data that the X-KEYSCORE system then sifts into a searchable format. According to the Guardian, the volume of collected information is so large that content is stored on the system for three to five days before being deleted, and metadata stays on the system for 30 days. The picture that emerges is of NSA analysts running searches against a continuous data stream.

Here’s something the National Security Agency probably isn’t happy to find in Edward Snowden’s latest revelation about its activities: The surprising locations of the servers that make up the program X-KEYSCORE, which, according to one leaked agency presentation, has the ability to vacuum up nearly every move a user makes on the Internet.

Those locations reportedly include China, Ecuador, Russia, Sudan, and Venezuela. In short, the NSA has managed to either place or gain access to servers in a collection of countries that are deeply hostile to the United States. Put another way, computer technicians in every one of those countries are probably combing through their systems right now to figure out ways to boot out the NSA.

The image at the top of this post comes from Wednesday’s Guardian story on X-KEYSCORE, which includes a set of slides described as internal NSA training material. The slide in question says that the program includes roughly 150 sites around the world and spans some 700 servers. The Guardian‘s coverage does not make entirely clear how the program works, but the report seems to outline a system that perches on top of communications infrastructure and sucks up streams of data that the X-KEYSCORE system then sifts into a searchable format. According to the Guardian, the volume of collected information is so large that content is stored on the system for three to five days before being deleted, and metadata stays on the system for 30 days. The picture that emerges is of NSA analysts running searches against a continuous data stream.

It doesn’t take much imagination to figure out how Chinese officials might feel about the NSA operating a mass-collection system inside its borders. "The Prismgate affair is itself just like a prism that reveals the true face and hypocritical conduct regarding Internet," Defense Ministry spokesman Col. Yang Yujun said earlier this month. "To, on the one hand, abuse one’s advantages in information technology for selfish ends, while on the other hand, making baseless accusations against other countries, shows double standards that will be of no help for peace and security in cyberspace." Now the Chinese can add the X-KEYSCORE allegations to their long list of complaints.

Edward Snowden once claimed that while sitting at his desk he had the ability to "wiretap anyone, from you or your accountant, to a federal judge or even the president, if I had a personal email." The X-KEYSCORE revelations appear to at least partially validate that statement — and the Russian government’s decision earlier this month to invest in typewriters in response to the NSA leaks. And it’s not just that the NSA is able to collect vast quantities of information — it’s apparently able to do so in almost every corner of the globe. Consider this sampling of countries in which the NSA has an X-KEYSCORE presence: Mexico, Colombia, Brazil, Egypt, Algeria, Nigeria, Spain, France, Germany, Turkey, Pakistan, India, Japan, and even Myanmar.

As for those red dots ringing Antarctica? Why the NSA would have "sites" in the South Pole is anyone’s guess.

Twitter: @EliasGroll

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.
An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.

Is Cold War Inevitable?

A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.

So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.