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The NSA Turned Spying into a Video Game for Analysts

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Spying must get boring sometimes. Identifying targets. Wiretapping unsuspecting citizens. Sifting through all that private data. It must get old. Maybe that's why the NSA introduced gamification elements into its software to encourage a little bit of healthy competition between analysts.

A new report from Der Spiegel offers fresh details about the NSA's operations in Germany, a country that happens to be both a partner in and target of the agency's spying operations. At the center of operations there is the NSA's super snooping software XKeyscore which gives analysts the ability to monitor "nearly everything" you do online. Citing internal reports, Der Spiegel explains how the agency turned XKeyscore into a video game for analysts:

To create additional motivation, the NSA incorporated various features from computer games into the program. For instance, analysts who were especially good at using XKeyscore could acquire "skilz" points and "unlock achievements." The training units in Hesse were apparently successful. ECC analysts had achieved the "highest average of skilz points" compared with all other NSA departments participating in the training program.


"Skilz," huh? Did analysts level up when they identified American citizens who were talking with targets? Or get extra lives for intercepting messages between citizens that include mention of one of these targets? How does one win at spying?


There's no telling from Der Spiegel's report, but we do know NSA analysts had a colorful understanding of their work. According to one report, they likened their spying to "Forrest Gump on his shrimping boat off the coast of Alabama." When collecting data, it felt like finding "a boot, a toilet seat, seaweed, and, there they are … three shrimp!" The shrimp, of course, represents valuable intel. And the toilet seat? That's your violated personal information and private communication, unsuspecting citizen.

That's all verbatim from an NSA report. Glad to know they're taking this who spying thing seriously. [Der Spiegel]