Leaked NSA Ragtime files hint at spying on U.S. citizens

Exposed data included new information on the NSA Ragtime intelligence-gathering program, but it is unclear if the evidence proves Americans were targeted.

Newly exposed information showed that the National Security Agency's Ragtime intelligence-gathering program was...

bigger than was previously thought, and it may have included processes targeting Americans.

Part of the NSA data cache left exposed on an unsecured cloud server included files regarding the NSA Ragtime intelligence-gathering operations. Before this leak, there were four known variants of Ragtime. The most well-known variant was Ragtime P -- revealed by Edward Snowden -- authorizing the bulk collection of mobile phone metadata.

The exposed data was found by Chris Vickery, director of cyber-risk research at UpGuard, based in Mountain View, Calif., and the new NSA Ragtime information was first reported by ZDNet. According to ZDNet, the leaked data mentioned 11 different variants of the Ragtime program, including Ragtime USP.

This raised concerns, because "USP" is a term known in the intelligence community to mean "U.S. person." Targeting U.S. citizens and permanent residents in surveillance programs is illegal, but as in the case of Ragtime P, the NSA has contended it "incidentally" collected information on Americans as part of operations targeting foreign nationals.

As yet, it is unclear what the NSA Ragtime USP program entailed or what the exposed data repository included.

"Within the repository was data that mentioned the four known Ragtime programs, including Ragtime P, which is known to target Americans, and seven previously unknown programs, including one called USP. We have no evidence beyond this, as far as I know, about Ragtime," an UpGuard spokesperson said.

NSA Ragtime data collection and storage

Only entities that have accountability for implementing strong security controls and establishing effective privacy controls should be allowed to hold ... such large amounts of sensitive and privacy-impacting data.
Rebecca HeroldCEO, Privacy Professor

Rebecca Herold, CEO of Privacy Professor, said it is possible the NSA targeted Americans, but it could be nothing more than the repository of data "incidentally" collected in other operations.

"While the stated purpose is to capture the communications of foreign nationals, the reality is that individuals who engage, or are brought into a conversation by others, are now subject to having their communications also collected, monitored and analyzed," Herold told SearchSecurity. "So, while there are different versions of Ragtime described, and only one or two that describes U.S. citizens' and residents' data being involved, the reality is that, based on the descriptions, all of the versions of Ragtime could easily involve U.S. residents' and citizens' data. This incidental collection is a result of how the Ragtime versions are publicly described as being engineered."

The NSA Ragtime P metadata collection was ruled illegal by U.S. courts, but intelligence agencies were allowed to keep the data already acquired. According to Herold, "another problem that has never been addressed through these surveillance programs is data retention." And, she said, the recent data exposures by government agencies should lead to revisiting that decision.

"Only entities that have accountability for implementing strong security controls and establishing effective privacy controls should be allowed to hold such gigantic repositories that contain such large amounts of sensitive and privacy-impacting data," Herold said. "This would likely need to be an objective, validated and nonpartisan entity, with ongoing audit oversight. The NSA has not demonstrated any of these accountabilities or capabilities to date, and the majority of government lawmakers have long enabled the NSA's lack of security and privacy controls."

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