It may not be what you think.
There have been so many revelations about the National Security Agency (NSA) since whistleblower Edward Snowden's emergence last June that it is hard for the average news reader to keep up with them. That in mind, here's our list of the 10 most important stories Snowden's whistleblowing has revealed.
10.) The NSA intercepts certain computer shipments and implants malware
Documents provided by Snowden to the German newspaper Der Spiegel show that the NSA has routing centers that intercept certain computer shipments bound for countries like China and Iran, then implant software and hardware in these systems that can report back to the agency. Of course, that's just the tip of the iceberg.
9.) The NSA is compiling dossiers of leading Islamists' porn surfing habits
A report in The Huffington Post revealed that the NSA is keeping tabs on the porn surfing habits of people they call "radicalizers," providing six examples -- all of whom were Islamist leaders. By compiling a dossier of embarrassing information on these individuals, the agency hopes to discredit them before they amass enough followers to pose a threat to U.S. interests. It's no stretch of the imagination to think that similar dossiers could be compiled on other targets, especially considering that...
8.) The NSA targeted journalists, activists and human rights groups
Germany's Der Spiegel struck again in August, revealing that the NSA's hackers broke into the internal network at Al Jazeera, a Middle Eastern news network that recently expanded into the U.S. Another report, from The New York Times in December, painted an even fuller portrait of the agency's efforts across more than 60 countries, revealing that they also spied on the leaders of UNICEF and the U.N. Institute for Disarmament Research, among others. Numerous businesses were on the list too, including foreign-owned oil companies. To make matters worse, the agency has also been keeping tabs on activists who oppose the U.S. drone airstrike program, referring to them internally as "threats" and "adversaries."
7.) The NSA also targeted diplomats and heads of states
The list of diplomats and national leaders whose communications have fallen under the NSA's gaze is long indeed. The Guardian revealed in October that the leaders of at least 35 nations were targeted, including German Prime Minister Angela Merkel. Der Spiegel followed this report several days later with information on American spies stationed at the U.S. embassy in Berlin, revealing that America's embassies around the world are littered with snoops. Another report, in the Brazilian magazine Época, makes it clear that the information gathered on foreign diplomats and heads of states is used to bend international diplomacy to America's will.
6.) Not even America's business elite are exempt from NSA spying
Companies like Microsoft, Google, Twitter, Facebook, Apple, Yahoo and others were outraged to learn that the NSA's hackers targeted their data centers and gained total access. NSA spies went so deep that they even infiltrated online gaming networks like Xbox Live, World of Warcraft and even Nintendo's handheld consoles. An array of these tech giants wrote to the government in December demanding change and warning that the NSA "undermines the freedoms we all cherish." Despite their demand for change, it is the tech industry's compliance with the NSA that has enabled some of the agency's biggest projects. By paying Internet service providers and firms like Microsoft, Facebook, AT&T and Verizon, the NSA gets access to built-in backdoors to popular communications platforms and even whole networks, letting them snoop on anyone they choose.
5.) The NSA is keeping tabs on all of your relationships
If you thought Facebook was a massive invasion of privacy, get a load of this: a September report by The New York Times claims that the NSA has created detailed relationship maps that track how Americans interact with one another. These maps can reveal who you communicate with most, who you travel with, your specific location at certain times and other detailed personal information. Want to find out if someone is having an affair? That's in the database. Trying to uncover someone's embarrassing behaviors and the people they were with? That's likely in there too.
4.) NSA analysts frequently ignore the agency's own privacy rules
"NSA privacy rules" sounds a lot like an oxymoron, but the agency insists they do exist. Frighteningly, if you've ever dated an NSA analyst, there's a chance that your ex has kept tabs on you. An internal agency audit obtained by The Washington Post in August found over 2,000 violations of the NSA's own privacy rules in 2012 alone. Those violations were committed just in NSA installations around the Washington, D.C. area, and not agency wide. It's unclear just how many times analysts have spied on love interests or shared privileged information with others, but the audit says that only one in 10 of the violations on record were due to incidental errors like misspelling someone's name.
3.) NSA hackers have completely obliterated all notions of privacy on the Internet
The Guardian learned in October that NSA hackers have smashed all known encryption protocols that safeguard Internet users' privacy, and even managed to slice through the much-lauded Tor Network, a specialized web browser designed to hide your identity online. Tor was instrumental for activists and journalists struggling to get online from Iran, Egypt and other repressive nations during periods of turmoil and mass censorship, but it now appears to have been defeated by the very American government that promoted its use and the Internet in general as a weapon against tyranny.
2.) All your communications are being stored for up to one year
What does the NSA do with all the millions of gigabytes it soaks up every day? They are archived for up to one year and stitched into "patterns of lifestyle" profiles assigned to everyone who falls under the agency's gaze, according to The Guardian. Information stored in these profiles includes all your phone calls, text messages, emails and other electronic communications -- even your mobile phone's location data. An added layer of analysis software on top of this mega-database enables analysts to track anybody, anywhere, in real time. They can even set up alerts for when their targets are using an electronic device and watch their interactions, keystroke by keystroke.
1.) The NSA has even gotten to President Obama
While the president assured Americans that he's remained "skeptical" of the nation's surveillance capabilities, the Obama of 2005 and 2007 -- who once called warrantless wiretapping "illegal" and strongly criticized the Patriot Act -- is gone forever. His turn from reformer to champion of the military industrial complex began in 2008, when he voted in the Senate to legalize President George W. Bush's post-9/11 spying programs and grant immunity to the telecoms that went along with them. By the time Snowden's revelations got rolling in June 2013, it became crystal clear just how much he'd changed. And when political pressure finally became too great, forcing him to announce critical reforms to the world's most powerful spy agency, Obama produced little more than window dressing. Along the way, he made a point to scoff at the whistleblower who brought all this information to light.
The New York Times captured our president's sad transformation best with a video published Jan. 15, placing clips of Obama's evolving statements on our spying capacities back-to-back in chronological order. The discernable difference in this man between 2005 and 2014 is night and day.