XKeyscore (XKS) is a search engine that is used to access vast databases of illicitly acquired data off internet traffic, communications along with phone metadata, globally. This is achieved by utilization of databases mandated by USA’s National Security Agency (NSA).
The XKS is designed to give sweeping powers to NSA analysts to wiretap any computing system or network and access enhanced information on the internet, including encrypted ones, in real time along with maintaining a backlog of collected data.
The XKS has been designed to act on both a global and domestic scale. This entails collecting virtually all kinds of information stored on and exchanged via digital communications systems over the internet. As per NSA and mandated by law legal justification is required before embarking on targeted searches particularly if subjects involve US citizens.
WORKING MODALITIES OF XKS
The XKS engine is primed to search big data. Data collection takes place through the deployed XKS application worldwide, and access is provided to top echelons of security brass in five countries, namely, US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Great Britain. This also lends credence to the fact that NSA is collecting data in a collaborative manner with partner countries.
As per various resources, back in 2008, the system powering XKS was a linearly distributed Linux cluster comprising 700 servers in 150 sites around the globe. The system is expandable by design, which is achievable by the simple addition of more servers. Some of its features are:
- XKS captures over 20 terabytes of data daily
- Has the capacity to process and store 41 billion records in a month
- Encrypted communication can also be intercepted, and VPNs decrypted
As per NSA, emails and soft data is aggressively tracked, and its ability to provide real time target activity to establish its superiority over similar tools like PRISM.
The modus operandi of spying on an unsuspecting user is straight forward – an email or IP address is all it takes as an identity token to analyse a user’s online activity.
It goes on without saying that a high level of sophisticated technology is required to set-up and seamlessly operate systems such as the XKS.
For instance, looking for specific information on an individual in a certain geographical area entails extraction of HTML language tags and making them searchable. The task is considerably intricate considering that country-wide traffic has to be scoured.
Information gathering especially via cyberspace are naturally received with suspicion and raise considerable controversies if an element of spying or unlawful acquisition of data amounting to violation of privacy is perceived.
NSA maintains that a court order is required for targeted searches on US citizens, yet it retains the legal cover to spy on non-US citizens without one. It also claims that its acts are focused and specifically deployed against legitimate foreign intelligence targets.
Critics maintain that NSA with a myriad of privacy invading systems like the XKS wields enormous, unchecked powers in the sense that obtaining legal permissions are only a matter of formality since there are no checks to prevent the analysts to use the system even without court authorization. Also, due to non-existence of any regulatory checks, there are virtually no repercussions or constraints in case unlawful accesses are attempted.