The Name Choices for Insidious NSA Tools, or Reading Way Too Far Between the Letters

(photo above is from the film, The Conversation, where Gene Hackman casually surveils a couple from the comfort of his bathroom floor)

On the blogvault of my personal hero Bruce Schneier, there is an insane list of all of the tools the NSA (amongst others) uses to unburden the common man of any pesky sense of privacy. The terms themselves, I find, are tellingly chosen:

HIGHLANDS: Collection from Implants
VAGRANT: Collection of Computer Screens
MAGNETIC: Sensor Collection of Magnetic Emanations
MINERALIZE: Collection from LAN Implant
OCEAN: Optical Collection System for Raster-Based Computer Screens
LIFESAFER: Imaging of the Hard Drive
GENIE: Multi-stage operation: jumping the airgap etc.
BLACKHEART: Collection from an FBI Implant
[…]
DROPMIRE: Passive collection of emanations using antenna
CUSTOMS: Customs opportunities (not LIFESAVER)
DROPMIRE: Laser printer collection, purely proximal access (***NOT*** implanted)
DEWSWEEPER: USB (Universal Serial Bus) hardware host tap that provides COVERT link over US link into a target network. Operates w/RF relay subsystem to provide wireless Bridge into target network.
RADON: Bi-directional host tap that can inject Ethernet packets onto the same targets. Allows bi-directional exploitation of Denies networks using standard on-net tools.

And yes, DROPMIRE is there twice: that’s how oppressive it is. Or else it’s a technological version of Orwellian doublespeak. Or it’s a typo. All explanations work for me, I’m cool with some degree of ambiguity.

There are plenty more where that came from too at Libwalk, all of which provide us with subtle hints of the patriarchial presumptions (as well as insecurities) of high-ranking NSA project-namers, including such manly tool monikers as HERCULES, the CIA terrorism database, TRAILBLAZER, the NSA Program to analyze data carried on communications networks, and JUGGERNAUT, which picks up all signals from mobile networks; and cheap spy names like  INTRUDER, a series of ELINT and COMINT spy satellites, and STONE GHOST, the DIA classified network for information exchange with UK, Canada and Australia; or secretive riddle and game names to convey the NSA’s intelligence and power over the realm of cryptology, like CHESS, the Compartment of TALENT KEYHOLE for the U-2 spy plane, TREASUREMAP, an NSA internet content visualization tool, PUZZLECUBE, an NSA tool or database; as well as an overabundance of chaotic/destructive  names to convey how badass/inevitable they are as a force, such as TEMPEST, TURBULENCE, TURMOIL, VORTEX, BULLRUN, FALLOUT, HIGHTIDE, RAMPART, and STORMBREW.

Based on word use alone, I can sense exactly how the NSA see themselves as a function of government: the top, the baddest, the elite… you can’t hide and you can’t stop them. These simple programming tools were fashioned with propaganda on the mind; though (as they were never intended to be publicly revealed), the NSA seems only to want to fool itself.

What I found more disturbing though was the inclusion of names lazily drizzled with vast ignorance, including ISHTAR, a Babylonian goddess whose name was used as a SIGINT Exchange Designator for Japan (which makes perfect sense for people who still use terms like “The Orient”); and INDIA, the SIGINT Exchange Designator for New Zealand somehow. “How could you think that’s in any way racist, Tony?” one may yet ask, and I’d respond by saying that RICHTER, a German name, is the SIGINT Exchange Designator for Germany. Seems pretty cut and dry.

What ominous things the simple naming of these programs and tools says about our government I’ll leave up to the experts, but I’m sure that Edward Snowden’s document dump wouldn’t have been as impactful if the tools had names like HELPFUL HAND, TRAFFIC ASSISTANCE or XPRIVACYASSURANCE.

BLACKHEART, on the other hand, doesn’t exactly help to advertise a feeling that the NSA is trying to help anyone.