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.

Filed Under: gamification, nsa, skilz, surveillance, training, xkeyscore


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  1. identicon
    Case, 19 Jun 2014 @ 7:35am


    SSO was informed on 12 March 2013 that the access point for WHARPDRIVE was discovered by commercial consortium personnel. Witting partner personnel have removed the evidence and a plausible cover story was provided.


    I'm sure that was a new highscore for the"witting partner personnel"...

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