The NSA's Guide To The Internet Is The Weirdest Thing You'll Read Today

from the nectar-on-the-ambrosia dept

The NSA has a well-earned reputation for being one of the tougher agencies to get records out of, making those rare FOIA wins all the sweeter. In the case of Untangling the Web, the agency's 2007 guide to internet research, the fact that the records in question just so happen to be absolutely insane are just icing on the cake - or as the guide would put it, "the nectar on the ambrosia."

MuckRock's Michael Morisy initially requested the guide after finding an entry on Google Books. A month later, the NSA responded with a complete release, minus the authors' names ...

Which was a bit odd, seeing as Michael had provided them in his initial request. But hey, gift horses and all that.

Now, at 650 pages, there's far too much to go into in depth here, but fortunately, as you can see from the table of contents...

you don't have to go very far before this takes a hard turn into "Dungeons and Dragons campaign/Classics major's undergraduate thesis" territory.

The preface employs a comical number of metaphors to describe what the internet is and isn't - sometimes two a paragraph. But don't take our word for it!

According to the NSA, the internet is ...

A Persian's personal library:

Sisyphus' boulder ...

A Freudian psycho-sexual pleasure palace ...

A Borgesian world-consuming knowledge-cancer ...

A labyrinth (with bonus Mino-Troll):

Two quick asides - one, in case your memory needed jogging as to what a clew was, the footnote helpfully provides that information ...

and two, before you cry foul that the beast in the center of the labyrinth is clearly a centaur, Ovid technically just describes the Minotaur as "half-man and half-bull" without specifying which half is which, so that interpretation is valid, if a bit needlessly obscure.

But while we're on the subject of pedantic footnotes ...

A shape-changing sea-god:

And finally, jumping ahead 600 pages, an endless frontier/a cemetery of dead ideas/a reminder of your aunt's 15-minutes of fame:

After that journey of discovery, Untangling the Web ends perhaps the only way it could: with a back cover design that looks cribbed from a ‘90s Christian rock album.

Read the full thing embedded below, or on the request page:

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  • icon
    Ehud Gavron (profile), 27 May 2016 @ 6:01pm

    Of course they released it

    The NSA has several layers of review of FOIA requests and plausive responses. At each layer the default is to either ignore it for a long time, say no, or return with blacked-out information.

    That this passed EACH AND EVERY ONE of those layers without a delay... without blacking out... and without a refusal (or a GLOMAR) is pretty much clear indication that this Mad Hatter tea party is no primer... is no guide... it's just a crazy-ass acid trip into broken Greek mythology.


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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 27 May 2016 @ 10:11pm

    "The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not represent the official opinion of NSA/CSS"

    No, actually, I think they do represent the NSA's official opinion. They're batshit insane, have nothing to contribute aside from fearmongering, and all they've accomplished is a mess of self-masturbation demonstrated by the article.

    It wouldn't be surprising to me if all the NSA employees put a copy of this tripe on a pedestal and spent the first hour of their working day kneeling prostrate to it like a cultist tome.

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  • identicon
    Mark Wing, 27 May 2016 @ 11:26pm

    I remember when the Internet was just a series of tubes, before it became the mythological mixed metaphor it is today.

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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 28 May 2016 @ 1:29am

    This was only made in 2007, so it's most likely still current NSA official policy/dogma in 2016.......

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 28 May 2016 @ 5:05am

    What this probably is,

    is an exam essay from somebody who was applying for their disinformation section. It would be consistent in style and tone with all the crap they produce on DEW's, electronic harassment and the like to obscure how much electronic warfare they are involved in, and who it is targeted at.

    Read as: Yes, this is precisely the kind of shit they do for a living. No, it isn't a joke. Yes, probably a few people are in padded rooms because they make a business out of this style of psychological warfare. Yes, probably more than a few of them are U.S. citizens, who would have a reasonable claim of injury.

    Distributing content specifically designed to appeal to and encourage psychosis in domestic markets, is not unlike the CIA's involvement in the California crack cocaine epidemic of the 1990's. Now that I think about it, it is likely that this kind of thing was probably used at some point against Gary Webb . Maybe it was successful, maybe it wasn't, considering he eventually reverted to suicide by shooting himself in the head... twice.

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  • icon
    afn29129 (profile), 28 May 2016 @ 5:50am


    After a quick glance at the book it reminds me of some of the early 'zines like Phrack, The Chaos Chronicles

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 28 May 2016 @ 7:17am

    Getting a Clew

    > ... a ball of thread or yarn ...

    Well, that's ONE definition. There are others.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 28 May 2016 @ 8:45am

    The report looks like the sort of thing that results when someone used to working in an authoritarian bureaucracy looks at an anarchy, they try to figure out the organisation and rules that govern it and get very confused.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Machin Shin (profile), 30 May 2016 @ 6:46am


      That is why I love watching the idiots in government try to talk about Anonymous. They are always stumbling about talking about finding the leaders and in general showing they have no clue

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Pixelation, 28 May 2016 @ 8:55am

    Good God

    Our tax dollars hard at work.

    We deserve a refund.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 28 May 2016 @ 12:21pm


    The intro stuff is a bit weird, but I'd call it poetic license.

    If you read past that there's solid and sane advice/tutoring. I see nothing here to indicate this is a co-intell piece, quite the contrary. So far, the only things I find suspicious is the lack of mention of Copernic- which was an extreamly usefull reaserch tool at the time.

    Aditionally there's no mention of linux- which (although still niche I guess) in 06 was already in a very usable state for a person of average intellegence. -iirc ubuntu 7 was very simple to install by that point, and Red Hat was even on Best Buy (or Circit City?) store shelves for a brief period; both having security/stability that were vastly superior to windows.

    If it's co-intel- explain page 524
    "Web Tip
    Virtually all Microsoft products come with all the doors open and unlocked, figuratively speaking. You must take upon yourself to find the open doors, shut them, and lock them tight."

    They do a good job enumorating those open doors...
    If this was co-intel they'd be leading the reader to trust microsoft products- microsoft having allready signed up for prism, and god knows what else by that point.

    Really, the whole chapter/section on security and privacy (514+) and resources (page 605+) is an acurate account of conserns and issues of the era, (many of which are still conserns...) and has links to the legitamate privacy/security sources of the time- such as grc.

    It's unclassified because it's not important/secret info- just publicly sourced stuff. The only thing remarkable is that it was ever classified in the first place.

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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 29 May 2016 @ 10:40am

    "icing on the cake"

    "the nectar on the ambrosia"

    I see they decided not to go for the first one

    "Dildo up the arse"

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 30 May 2016 @ 8:37pm

    A lot of the NSA is full of nerds. I see nothing wrong with them having a bit of personality for their internal dealings. Better that than the stereotypical anal-retentive Fed persona.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      John Fenderson (profile), 31 May 2016 @ 8:07am


      Conceptually, I agree. The optics are simply terrible, though. The NSA is engaging in practices that, at a minimum, a lot of citizens consider to be despicable -- and documents like this make it appear that the NSA considers the whole thing to be a big joke.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 31 May 2016 @ 10:01am

    Somebody got paid for this?

    650 pages of similes about the internet? Was there anything of actual value in this?
    Was this an employee that they didn't want to fire, but they didn't want him messing with the real work, so they just gave him the mother of busywork assignments? - "I want a a 600+ page book explaining the internet. Feel free to take a few years working on it."

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

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