Cover Story: How the NSA Targets Germany and Europe

By Laura Poitras, , Fidelius Schmid, Holger Stark and Jonathan Stock

Photo Gallery: America's Data Dragnet Photos
REUTERS

Part 3: NSA 'Alliances With Over 80 Major Global Corporations'

Heads of these companies have vociferously denied that the NSA has direct access to their data. But it would seem that, outside of the Prism program, dozens of companies have willingly worked together with the US intelligence agency.

According to the documents seen by SPIEGEL, a particularly valuable partner is a company which is active in the US and has access to information that crisscrosses America. At the same time, this company, by virtue of its contacts, offers "unique access to other telecoms and (Internet service providers)." The company is "aggressively involved in shaping traffic to run signals of interest past our monitors," according to a secret NSA document. The cooperation has existed since 1985, the documents say.

Apparently, it's not an isolated case, either. A further document clearly demonstrates the compliance of a number of different companies. There are "alliances with over 80 major global corporations supporting both missions," according to a paper that is marked top secret. In NSA jargon, "both missions" refers to defending networks in the US, on the one hand, and monitoring networks abroad, on the other. The companies involved include telecommunications firms, producers of network infrastructure, software companies and security firms.

Such cooperation is an extremely delicate issue for the companies involved. Many have promised their customers data confidentiality in their terms and conditions. Furthermore, they are obliged to follow the laws of the countries in which they do business. As such, their cooperation deals with the NSA are top secret. Even in internal NSA documents, they are only referred to using code names.

"There has long been a very close and very secret relationship between a number of telecoms and the NSA," Bamford, the expert on the NSA, told Die Zeit. "Every time it gets discovered it stops for a while and then starts up again."

The importance of this rather peculiar form of public-private partnership was recently made clear by General Alexander, the NSA chief. At a technology symposium in a Washington, DC, suburb in May, he said that industry and government must work closely together. "As great as we have it up there, we cannot do it without your help," he said. "You know, we can't do our mission without the great help of all the great people here." If one believes the documents, several experts were sitting in the audience from companies that had reached a cooperation deal with the NSA.

In the coming weeks, details relating to the collaboration between Germany's BND and the NSA will be the focus of a parliamentary investigative committee in Berlin responsible for monitoring the intelligence services. The German government has sent letters to the US requesting additional information. The questions that need to be addressed are serious. Can a sovereign state tolerate a situation in which half a billion pieces of data are stolen on its territory each month from a foreign country? And can this be done especially when this country has identified the sovereign state as a "3rd party foreign partner" and, as such, one that can be spied on at any time, as has now become clear?

So far, the German government has made nothing more than polite inquiries. But facts that have now come to light will certainly increase pressure on Chancellor Angela Merkel and her government. Elections, after all, are only three months away, and Germans -- as Merkel well knows -- are particularly sensitive when it comes to data privacy.

The NSA's Library of Babel

In a story written by the blind writer Jorge Luis Borges, the Library of Babel is introduced as perhaps the most secretive of all labyrinths: a universe full of bookshelves connected by a spiral staircase that has no beginning and no end. Those inside wander through the library looking for the book of books. They grow old inside without ever finding it.

If an actual building could really approach this imaginary library, it is the structure currently being erected in the Utah mountains near the city of Bluffdale. There, on Redwood Road, stands a sign with black letters on a white background next to a freshly paved road. Restricted area, no access, it reads. In Defense Department documents, form No. 1391, page 134, the buildings behind the sign are given the project No. 21078. It refers to the Utah Data Center, four huge warehouses full of servers costing a total of €1.2 billion ($1.56 billion).

Built by a total of 11,000 workers, the facility is to serve as a storage center for everything that is captured in the US data dragnet. It has a capacity that will soon have to be measured in yottabytes, which is 1 trillion terabytes or a quadrillion gigabytes. Standard external hard drives sold in stores have a capacity of about 1 terabyte. Fifteen such hard drives could store the entire contents of the Library of Congress.

The man who first made information about the Utah center public, and who likely knows the most about the NSA, is James Bamford. He says: "The NSA is the largest, most expensive and most powerful intelligence agency in the world."

Since the 9/11 terror attacks, the NSA's workforce has steadily grown and its budget has constantly increased. SPIEGEL was able to see confidential figures relating to the NSA that come from Snowden's documents, though the statistics are from 2006. In that year, 15,986 members of the military and 19,335 civilians worked for the NSA, which had an annual budget of $6.115 billion. These numbers and more recent statistics are officially confidential.

In other words, there is a good reason why NSA head Keith Alexander is called "Emporer Alexander." "Keith gets whatever he wants," says Bamford.

Still, Bamford doesn't believe that the NSA completely fulfills the mission it has been tasked with. "I've seen no indications that NSA's vastly expanded surveillance has prevented any terrorist activities," he says. There is, however, one thing that the NSA managed to predict with perfect accuracy: where the greatest danger to its secrecy lies. In internal documents, the agency identifies terrorists and hackers as being particularly threatening. Even more dangerous, however, the documents say, is if an insider decides to blow the whistle.

An insider like Edward Joseph Snowden.

REPORTED BY LAURA POITRAS, MARCEL ROSENBACH, FIDELIUS SCHMID, HOLGER STARK AND JONATHAN STOCK

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