How The NSA Gamified Spying On Everyone With 'Skilz' Points For NSA Analysts

from the bragging-rights-are-everything. dept

With a new batch of Snowden documents being revealed by Der Spiegel, mostly concerning the NSA’s operations in Germany, Andrea Peterson over at The Switch, noticed one only moderately terrifying tidbit in one of the documents: the NSA appears to have taken a lesson from the whole “gamification” movement and used it to help the NSA better spy on people.

You know all about “gamification” of course. The idea of adding “points” of some sort to just about everything, just to tap into people’s competitive spirit so they have something to compare. Sometimes it includes things like being able to “level up” and unlocking features. The document in question is a document about some NSA training on the XKeyscore system, which, you’ll recall, allows NSA analysts to pull up all sorts of info on people. Here’s a screenshot we posted nearly a year ago:

The document has clearly been written by someone who is having quite a bit of fun, and references seven-headed dragons and Forrest Gump trolling for shrimp among other things. It includes bizarre “quotes” about how awesome XKeyscore is, as if it’s a bad marketing brochure for some enterprise software:

“The first time I saw XKS, I said, ‘Whoa!!’ It is intimidating because you open it up and you see all these queries and fields,” said [REDACTED] “We took the students from that response to being able to approach it and navigate around in it. They see it differently now and know it’s not a seven-headed dragon.” This gentle introduction has definitely enabled analysts to ease into XKS and get more comfortable, and with that it has radically changed the overall mentality towards the tool.

[….] Before the training, I was just happy to use it and not go to jail,” said [REDACTED] …. “Now, I feel comfortable in my ability to use it and NOT go to jail. I used to always ask someone to look over my query before I submitted it. Now, my hand doesn’t need to be held.”

The document also talks about just how awesome XKeyscore is in that it comes up with results that other NSA systems can’t turn up:

“Our analysts have been building hashes for document tracking and rolling them into fingerprints. We have been getting documents in XKS that we were not getting in our PINWALE queries. Just today analysts found reportable material from the Tunisian Ministry of Interior that was not from any selectors we were targeting. Now we know what we can do with XKS and exactly why we want to use it — to make these discoveries.

These discoveries are igniting a trend of using XKS on a daily basis. “For daily pulls, analysts go through TransX, PINWALE, and now XKS to see what’s new for the day,” [REDACTED] said.

And then… we get to the gamification stuff, in which they discuss “XKS Skilz points.” I’m not joking. XKS. Skilz. Points.

Combine these exciting finds with the introduction of XKS Skilz points, and you can see why McDonald’s teamed up with Monopoly years ago: people buy more and even super size their orders just to get game pieces. With the brainchild of Skilz, where analysts can earn points and unlock achievements for performing tasks in XKS, people are willing to try new things within the tool. Analysts think to themselves, “Using the Prvot Data feature will earn 30 points… I’m going to try it and see what happens.” Discovery! Points! We have been lured by our geeky desire to unlock achievements and earn points, and bragging rights are everything.

“Definitely a number of users have gotten into the Skilz points. We have several people at level six. They see what they need to do to earn more points and start trying out different things,” said [REDACTED] In fact, ECC analysts now have the highest average of Skilz points compared to all of the S2 product lines and have written the most fingerprints per-capita! Some people say that the potent combination of Skilz points, the Circuit Training, and the team of easily-accessible, on-site instructors is the secret to ECC’s successes with XKS.

It reads so crazy, I’m half hoping the NSA just comes out and admits that this is an internal April Fool’s joke, but I fear that it may actually be serious. You can see that part on the bottom of page 3 in the embed below, or hell, here’s a screenshot:

Gamification can be a potentially useful tool, but something seems kinda scary to think that the NSA is turning surveillance into a game where analysts get extra points and powers by doing more spying with the system. Just the fact that the document admits that they’re using this to drudge up information that they can’t find through their other systems and it’s doubly concerning. Surveillance shouldn’t be seen as a game by anyone.

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Comments on “How The NSA Gamified Spying On Everyone With 'Skilz' Points For NSA Analysts”

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27 Comments
Violynne (profile) says:

While I understand people are pretty upset over the NSA spying on pretty much the entire world, but there’s one thing I’m curious as to know why no one is asking the basic question: Who wrote these programs?

One of the reasons I stopped taking contract jobs with the government is because of the asinine stupidity going on behind the scenes. The amount of money which exchanges hands is mind-boggling, which is why contractors can make some damn good money.

So good, in fact, none of them stop to ask themselves “Is this program I’m about to write and hand over to an agency with no oversight worth the price?”

I’m guessing, to these contractors, that answer is “No”.

Don’t blame the NSA for using the tools. Blame the people who sold out their country to write them to begin with.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

You got that the wrong way round.

‘Guns’ correspond to the ‘tools’ in your original analogy, and ‘the people who sold the murderer those guns’ corresponds to ‘the people who sold out their country to write them.’

So yes, your original analogy is entirely equivalent to AC’s analogy, and your position is just as stupid as AC’s analogy shows.

The NSA isn’t free of responsibility just because some of the tools they used may not have been created by the NSA.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

I agree the “I was told to do it” excuse doesn’t work (just like shooting someone at someone else’s orders will still land you in prison).

If you’re doing something immoral, and potentially unconstitutional, quit your job, or better yet – tell the world about it, so another fool doesn’t just replace you to keep the system going.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: No, they're both in the wrong

They are both in the wrong and both deserve blame.

The NSA for contracting the developers to build the software, and then using it in violation of the laws.

The developers are also to blame, as they agreed to write the damn thing and put aside morals, ethics, and laws for a fucking paycheck. I’ve heard a term for these kind of people; Little Eichmanns.

?The concept of justice should not be overlooked in considering the Unabomber phenomenon. In fact, except for his targets, when have the many little Eichmanns who are preparing the Brave New World ever been called to account??

?John Zerzan, Whose Unabomber?

Michael (profile) says:

Re: Re: No, they're both in the wrong

You don’t know any of the details, so blaming the developers is premature.

It is entirely possible that they built a tool with totally reasonable uses in mind and it has been misused. Just because someone uses a steak knife to kill a person does not mean the knife-designer was even under a reasonable expectation of that happening.

It is more than reasonable to think that the system developers – even the architects that saw all of the pieces – had no idea that the NSA would use these systems to do what they have been doing.

Stop Bushbama says:

Re: Re:

Don’t blame the NSA for using the tools. Blame the people who sold out their country to write them to begin with.

Note that the people who wrote those tools probably had no idea what they would be used for.

If I had been approached 15 years ago (before 9/11, the whole “everyone is a terrorist” idea, and the relevations about what the NSA actually does) about writing an application like XKeyscore, chances are I would have done it – never suspecting that they’d feed it with data on everyone rather than feeding it with data on actual criminals obtained through legit warrants.

The developers of those tools share the blame only if they knew or suspected what they would be used for.

Anonymous Coward says:

The problem with this is it programs the NSA employees to think what they do is a game and as a result makes them even further detached from the implications of what they’re doing (which i’m sure is the point) among other psychological impacts. It also sets the wrong tone for the agency which *i thought* was supposed to be a grown up organization dealing with serious and mature matters.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re:

One of the things that has become obvious in reading the Snowden docs is that the NSA has hired a whole pack of teenage script kiddies. At least, they’re indistinguishable from them in terms of their attitude, slang, and adoption of things like this “gamification” stuff.

It makes a bad situation even worse, in my opinion, and encourages exactly the opposite workplace culture from what people assume exists (and would want to exist).

Zonker says:

Achievements Available:

Bronze Achievement: Performed a LOVEINT without self reporting for the first time.
Silver Achievement: Performed 10 LOVEINTs successfully.
Gold Achievement: Performed 100 LOVEINTs resulting in at least one successful romantic encounter.

Bronze Achievement: Data you collected resulted in a successful parallel construction conviction for the first time.
Silver Achievement: Performed 10 parallel constructions successfully.
Gold Achievement: Perform 100 parallel constructions without a single FOIA request being made.

Bronze Achievement: Collect metadata on 10,000 foreign targets.
Silver Achievement: Collect metadata on 1,000,000 domestic targets.
Gold Achievement: Collect metadata on everybody in the entire world.

Bronze Achievement: Reported on a whistleblower for the first time.
Silver Achievement: Stopped 10 whistleblowers.
Gold Achievement: Capture and destroy Edward Snowden.

Stop Bushbama says:

Re: Re:

Bronze Achievement: Dig up information on an oil-rich country that gives us an excuse to go to war.
Silver Achievement: Dig up information on an oil-rich country that gives us an excuse to go to war and establish a permanent military presence there.
Gold Achievement: Forge information on an oil-rich country that gives us an excuse to go to war and establish a permanent military presence there.

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