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The year the NSA hacked the world: A 2013 PRISM timeline (Part I)

Up to speed with Part I? Check out how the story unfolded with Part II of The year the NSA hacked the world: A 2013 PRISM timeline.

On 20 May 2013, a diminutive and bespectacled computer specialist employed as a contractor by the American National Security Agency (NSA) boarded a plane to Hong Kong. He'd taken a leave of absence from work on the pretext of receiving treatment for his newly-diagnosed epilepsy, and bought a last-minute plane ticket at the airport, with no advance booking.

As he sat in his seat and the plane taxied along the runway, he must have felt the nerves rising, never quite believing that the plane would leave the ground. As he watched the white sand beaches and lapis blue shallows of Waipahu, Hawaii shrink beneath him, he must have experienced a moment of realisation.

This, he must have known, was the last time he would ever see his home again.

His name was Edward Snowden, and on his person he carried a flash drive containing 200,000 of the US government's most highly-classified files. By the time his plane left Waipahu for Hong Kong, the 29-year old analyst had already made contact with Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald and documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, with the intention of releasing the files to the public. The publication of these documents would forever change how people think about the Internet, surveillance, and the people who govern us.

Edward Snowden's disclosures were the single largest leak in the history of the United States government, and have proved to be not just an embarrassment for the US, but a genuine diplomatic disaster. Ripples from the mass disclosure trove are still reverberating around the world, with another story coming out every week. The scandal has rocked alliances, scuppered agreements and left President Barrack Obama fumbling to reclaim his mantle as the harbinger of change.

As 2013, the year of the leak comes to an end, we at ITProPortal take a look back at the last six months, time-lining the saga and trying to make some sense of it all.

5 June

The revelations of NSA spying opened in grand fashion on Wednesday 5 June. The Guardian newspaper announced that the massive leak had occurred, and published as proof an order from the United States Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) to telecommunications company Verizon. The order demanded the handing over of metadata on the phone conversations of millions of Americans to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the NSA. These orders were apparently sent on a daily basis.

News outlets around the world poured themselves some extra strong coffee that night.

6 June

While the world was still getting its head around that information, The Washington Post and The Guardian released the PowerPoint slides given to them by Snowden; slides which they claimed showed the NSA has direct, government-mandated, warrantless access via the PRISM program to the servers of some of the US' biggest tech companies, including Google, Apple, Skype and Microsoft. Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the Internet, called the disclosures "deeply disturbing," and warned that such widespread surveillance could threaten "the foundations of democracy".

7 June

Next The Guardian published Presidential Policy Directive 20, which ordered government officials to draw up a list of potential overseas targets for cyber-attacks orchestrated by the US government.

It said that the government would "identify potential targets of national importance where offensive cyber effects operations (OCEO) can offer a favorable balance of effectiveness and risk as compared with other instruments of national power."

Fears began to spread that the Internet had become weaponised by the US government.

8 June

For the reeling US national security apparatus, things only got worse. As the three-letter agencies scrambled to identify the leaker who disclosed the classified documents to the press, another revelation sent the world spinning.

The Guardian published another round of PowerPoint slides, revealing the existence of Boundless Informant, an NSA tool that provides "near real-time" data on the agency's spying capabilities around the world, broken down by country. And what's more – the slides revealed that the NSA collected almost 3 billion pieces of intelligence on US citizens in February 2013 alone.

9 June

Then came the big reveal. At Snowden's request, the Guardian revealed his identity to the world, and published an interview he'd given with journalist Glenn Greenwald and American filmmaker Laura Poitras in Hong Kong.

Snowden apparently wrote to Greenwald: "I understand that I will be made to suffer for my actions," but that "I will be satisfied if the federation of secret law, unequal pardon and irresistible executive powers that rule the world that I love are revealed even for an instant."

During the interview, Snowden said that he had seen things through his high-clearance position that he found "disturbing."

"During the course of a normal person's career, you'd only see one or two," he told his interviewers, but "when you see everything, you see them on a more frequent basis."

He didn't dare to contact his family, or his girlfriend.

12 June

After increasing pressure, the UK foreign secretary William Hague finally dismissed accusations that the government communications headquarters (GCHQ) had joined in with the surveillance free-for-all.

In response to the claims, Hague told Parliament that "this accusation is baseless. Any data obtained by us from the United States involving UK nationals is subject to proper UK statutory controls and safeguards."

This, in the fullness of time, turned out to be not exactly 100 per cent true. But more on that later.

13 June

NSA chief Keith Alexander finally broke his silence, too, and defended the PRISM programme. He claimed that "dozens of terrorist events" had been prevented by use of the system. US Secretary of State John Kerry also spoke out: "With respect to privacy, freedom and the Constitution," Kerry said, "I think over time this will withstand scrutiny and people will understand it."

The programmes, Kerry added, had prevented some "pretty terrible events."

14 June

On Friday 14, it emerged that the UK government had issued an order to all airlines, informing them that if they allowed Edward Snowden to board a plane to the UK, it would be "highly likely" that he would be refused entry into the country. Any airline not abiding by the order would be fined £2,000, and would also have to pay costs relating to the detention and removal of the man the order made clear.

17 June

The fallout continued apace, as Microsoft, Apple and Facebook all published the number of requests for data that they'd received from the three-letter agencies. From 1 December 2012 to 31 May 2013, Apple received between 4,000 and 5,000 requests from the US government to pass on customer data, covering between 9,000 and 10,000 devices. Microsoft revealed information had been requested for approximately 31,000 customer accounts in the second half of 2012, while social network Facebook said it received between 9,000 and 10,000 requests covering 19,000 accounts over the same period.

18 June

Six days after William Hague denied any involvement in illegal information-gathering, files were released that revealed how the British government monitored the phone calls and emails of those who attended the 2009 G20 summits in London.

Among the allegations is that the GCHQ set up Internet cafes for delegates that used key-logging software to capture their activity on the machines. Dozens of analysts were also reportedly monitoring phone activity among delegates at the conference 24 hours a day.

This was seriously embarrassing, and made a lot of people think that Hague's denials might have been something other than completely true.

19 June

More and more US-based companies became implicated in the PRISM scandal as the days went by. Before long, it emerged that Skype had set up a secret surveillance programme called Project Chess to give US spy authorities access to users' information.

The sources said that Project Chess began five years earlier, long before Microsoft's acquisition of Skype in late 2011.

The revelations contradicted earlier comments by Skype corporate vice president Mark Gillett, who wrote a detailed blog post the previous July denying that changes to Skype were made to give law enforcement easy access. He also denied that Skype monitors and records video and audio calls.

That was another statement that turned out to be not exactly 100 per cent the truth.

21 June

Remember the vociferous denials of UK involvement in NSA spying by the British government, all of nine days ago?

Well 21 June saw the Guardian publish several documents that stunned the British public, detailing the widespread and flagrant use of a programme called Tempora. Snowden revealed that the two principal components of Tempora are called "Mastering the Internet" and "Global Telecoms Exploitation". He claimed that each is intended to collate online and telephone traffic. Tempora taps into large fibre optic cables that carry massive amounts of Internet and telephone traffic between continents on the ocean floor. Since a large amount of Internet traffic from the US to European countries travels through wires that make landfall in the UK, this was big news for Europe, too.

23 June

Snowden flew from Hong Kong to Moscow, en route to Latin America, using travel documents issued by the Ecuadorian embassy in London. Yes, the same embassy where Wikileaks founder Julian Assange is still to this day living. On arrival, Snowden found that he was unable to leave the transit area of Moscow's Sheremetyevo International Airport, as his passport has been revoked by the US. Snowden began seeking asylum elsewhere.

28 June

In a keynote lecture to the Socialism 2013 conference in Chicago delivered via skype, journalist Glenn Greenwald revealed that a then-unpublished NSA document details the use of "a brand new technology allows the National Security Agency to direct, re-direct, into its own depositories, 1 billion cell phone calls every single day." Things were starting to get serious.

29 June

And this is where the NSA revelations started to become a diplomatic embarrassment. Filmmaker Laura Poitras wrote an article in German daily Der Spiegel, in which she revealed America's electronic surveillance and bugging of European Union offices in New York, Washington, DC and Brussels. The next day, The Guardian reported that America also performed surveillance on the embassies of France, Italy, Greece, Japan, Mexico, South Korea, India and Turkey.

It was around this point that someone high up in the NSA must have got a seriously bad feeling about how this was going.

30 June

Poitras dropped another bomb in the form of another article, revealing that the NSA spies on 500 million data connections in Germany every month. The article also reported how the NSA is only prohibited from "spying attacks" on the "Five Eyes" spying partners: the US, Canada, UK, Australia and New Zealand. From the highest diplomats to the most ordinary citizen: suddenly it seemed no one was safe.

To be continued...

And so came the end of one of the craziest months in US history, with Edward Snowden holed up in Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport, facing an uncertain future, and leaks spewing out every day. What no one knew at this point was that there was still much, much worse to come...

Read Part II of our PRISM timeline here.