For weeks now, officials at intelligence services around the world have been in suspense as one leak after another from whistleblower Edward Snowden has been published. Be it America's National Security Agency, Britain's GCHQ or systems like Prism or Tempora, he has been leaking scandalous information about international spying agencies. In an interview published by SPIEGEL in its latest issue, Snowden provides additional details, describing the closeness between the US and German intelligence services as well as Britain's acquisitiveness when it comes to collecting data.
In Germany, reports of the United States' vast espionage activities have surprised and upset many, including politicians. But Snowden isn't buying the innocence of leading German politicians and government figures, who say that they were entirely unaware of the spying programs. On the contrary, the NSA people are "in bed together with the Germans," the whistleblower told American cryptography expert Jacob Appelbaum and documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras in an interview conducted with the help of encrypted emails shortly before Snowden became a globally recognized name.
Snowden describes the intelligence services partnerships in detail. The NSA even has a special department for such cooperation, the Foreign Affairs Directorate, he says. He also exposes a noteworthy detail about how government decision-makers are protected by these programs. The partnerships are organized in a way so that authorities in other countries can "insulate their political leaders from the backlash" in the event it becomes public "how grievously they're violating global privacy," the former NSA employee says.
Intensive Cooperation with Germany
SPIEGEL reporting also indicates that cooperation between the NSA and Germany's foreign intelligence service, the BND, is more intensive than previously known. The NSA, for example, provides "analysis tools" for the BND to monitor signals from foreign data streams that travel through Germany. Among the BND's focuses are the Middle East route through which data packets from crisis regions travel.
BND head Gerhard Schindler confirmed the partnership during a recent meeting with members of the German parliament's control committee for intelligence issues.
But it's not just the BND's activities that are the focus of the interview with Snowden.
The 30-year-old also provides new details about Britain's Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ). He says that Britain's Tempora system is the signal intelligence community's first "full-take Internet buffer," meaning that it saves all of the data passing through the country.
Data Remains Buffered for Three Days
The scope of this "full take" system is vast. According to Snowden and Britain's Guardian newspaper, Tempora stores communications data for up to 30 days and saves all content for up to three days in a so-called Internet buffer. "It snarfs everything in a rolling buffer to allow retroactive investigation without missing a single bit," Snowden says.
Asked if it is possible to get around this total surveillance of all Internet communication, he says: "As a general rule, so long as you have any choice at all, you should never route through or peer with the UK under any circumstances."
In other words, Snowden says, one can only prevent GCHQ from accessing their data if they do not send any information through British Internet lines or servers. However, German Internet experts believe this would be almost impossible in practice.
Metadata Provide Orientation in Sea of Data
The attempt to conduct total data retention is noteworthy because most of the leaks so far in the spying scandal have pertained to so-called metadata. In the interview, Snowden reiterates just how important metadata -- which can include telephone numbers, IP addresses and connection times, for example -- really are. "In most cases, content isn't as valuable as metadata," Snowden says.
Those in possession of metadata can determine who has communicated with whom. And using the metadata, they can determine which data sets and communications content they would like to take a closer look at. "The metadata tells you what out of their data stream you actually want," Snowden says.
It is becoming increasingly clear to recognize the way in which surveillance programs from the NSA and GCHQ -- including Prism, Tempora and Boundless Informant -- cooperate. The metadata provides analysts with tips on which communications and content might be interesting. Then, Snowden says, with the touch of a button they can then retrieve or permanently collect the full content of communications that have already been stored for a specific person or group, or they can collect future communications. But a person can also be "selected for targeting based on, for example, your Facebook or webmail content."