Edward Snowden, XKEYSCORE, and Government Surveillance

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "Permanent Record" by Edward Snowden. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.

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What is XKEYSCORE and how is it used? How did Edward Snowden verify that the government was conducting mass surveillance? How did Snowden, XKEYSCORE, NSA, and privacy rights all come together to lead to whistleblowing?

Used at one point by Edward Snowden, XKEYSCORE is a mass surveillance technology. The NSA can use this technology to see what any person has done on the internet.

Read about Snowden, XKEYSCORE use at the NSA, and how this pushed Snowden towards blowing the whistle.


One of the major programs for mass surveillance was called XKEYSCORE. Ed had known that the mass surveillance tech existed from what he’d found, but being trained on it was a whole different matter.

Snowden: XKEYSCORE Experience

The NSA XKEYSCORE technology allowed Ed to look up almost everything anyone does on the Internet. He could type in almost anyone’s—including the NSA’s director or the president’s—IP address, phone number, or address and have access to their recent online browsing. Sometimes even a recording of their screen was available. Ed hid his searches by typing them in a machine format that was readable by XKEYSCORE but incomprehensible to people.

NSA: XKEYSCORE Abuses Never Prosecuted

Most of what he saw was personal rather than professional abuse—LOVEINT. People would spy on their spouses or exes. If you use surveillance like this you can get ten years in prison, but no one in the NSA had ever been sentenced. The NSA couldn’t publicly prosecute anyone because to do so, they’d have to admit the secret mass surveillance system existed.

Snowden: XKEYSCORE a Window Into Mass Surveillance

Ed learned as much as he could about the mass surveillance programs from the people working with them, justifying his curiosity by saying he wanted to teach everyone back in Hawaii the latest methods. Everyone he met was excited about the tech, was happy to show it off for him, and didn’t think about how it was being used.

Ed also learned that almost everyone does two things on the Internet: store images of their family, and watch porn. Ed found the family element the most uncomfortable. Ed found a video of a target working on his computer with a young child sitting on his lap, and the child stared directly into the camera as if he knew Ed was watching.

Edward Snowden, XKEYSCORE, and Government Surveillance

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best summary of Edward Snowden's "Permanent Record" at Shortform .

Here's what you'll find in our full Permanent Record summary :

  • What Ed Snowden discovered that caused him to completely lose faith in the government
  • How Snowden led the bombshell reports of US mass surveillance
  • How Snowden is coping with his treatment as both patriot and traitor

Rina Shah

An avid reader for as long as she can remember, Rina’s love for books began with The Boxcar Children. Her penchant for always having a book nearby has never faded, though her reading tastes have since evolved. Rina reads around 100 books every year, with a fairly even split between fiction and non-fiction. Her favorite genres are memoirs, public health, and locked room mysteries. As an attorney, Rina can’t help analyzing and deconstructing arguments in any book she reads.

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