Future Tense

Five Useless Tips From the NSA’s Quaint, Hopelessly Outdated Guide to Internet Research

The NSA probably has some good Internet researchers. But its 2007 guide is hardly helpful.

Photo by PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images

As Wired reported yesterday in an item titled “Use These Secret NSA Google Search Tips to Become Your Own Spy Agency,” the NSA just released a 643-page in-house guide to Internet research following a FOIA request made by MuckRock in April. Given the provenance of Untangling the Internet: A Guide to Researching the Internet, one might be tempted to regard the imposing document as the ultimate manual for tech-assisted espionage of the highest caliber. Like Wired, Gizmodo went so far as to urge readers to check out the book if they want to “use the internet like a spy.” Indeed, the guide does contain an exhaustive section of useful, lesser-known Google hacks, and one could certainly do worse than read its advice for avoiding computer viruses and Internet scams. Nevertheless, a careful perusal of Untangling the Internet will reward the reader not so much with secret recipes for Internet wizardry as with well-known tips geared to technologically challenged bureaucrats.


But the guide, which was published internally in 2007, won’t just make you weep about technological incompetence within our government. Less depressingly, it shows just how much the Internet has changed in only six short years.

To drive these two points home, below are five of the guide’s most unhelpful tips.

1. “Translations: Currently, Google offers webpage translations to/from English and Arabic, simplified Chinese, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. If a page appears in the result list in one of the languages Google translation supports, you will see [Translate this page] after the page title. All the newest additions to Google’s translation list use statistical machine translation software developed by Google and the quality of these translations is far superior to that provided by Systran. These languages include at present Arabic, simplified Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Russian.” (page 60)


Why this isn’t helpful: Anybody who was not already familiar with Google’s translation capabilities in 2007 had previously been living under a rock without wifi. This tip is not dissimilar to telling somebody in the 1980s that it was possible to buy a “bilingual dictionary” to look up the meaning of foreign words. One can only hope, at any rate, that this advice wasn’t geared towards the NSA’s staff of supposedly top-flight language analysts.


2. “Use Good Passwords

While there is no guaranteed protection against a determined malicious hacker, following these basic rules probably will help protect you and not following them is an invitation to disaster:

-       Never use a real word in any language (too easy for dictionary attacks to break).
-       Never use just letters.
-       Make it at least 8 characters long.
-       Include both upper and lower case letters.
-       Include numbers.
-       Include special characters.” (pages 591–592)


Why this isn’t helpful: OK, granted, this potentially could be very helpful—but only if it hadn’t been widely known by everybody and their mother for years. It’s surprising that there may have been spymasters at the NSA as late as 2007 who thought using the password “password” for their online bank accounts was a safe bet, but naiveté apparently knows no boundaries.

3. “Google’s ‘synonym’ (related term) search. If you place a tilde (~) in front of a keyword, Google will search for the keyword and for its synonyms. For example, a search for [‘computer ~security’] will find not only security but also vulnerability, encryption, secure, firewall. As you can see, this is not a search for synonyms but for related terms.” (page 87)


Why this isn’t helpful: Nowadays, Google basically does this by default. I ran searches for both “bacterium infect” and “~bacterium ~infect” and both search results were identical, returning a large number of pages containing the words “bacterial infection,” which was exactly what I was going for in the first place.

4. “Yahoo Podcasts: Yahoo’s new search site is designed not only to find podcasts on topics of interst but also let users search podcasts by keywords, categories or user-generated topic tags. The new site is a variation of the traditional Yahoo directory, offering a category list by topics, lists of ‘what other people like’ and ‘what we like,’ and a search box that lets users choose to search either series, episodes or both.” (page 110)


Why this isn’t helpful: Entering podcasts.yahoo.com into the address bar results in an error page. In fact, the service was discontinued in October 2007. Other Yahoo services touted in the document and which are now defunct include Yahoo Site Explorer (merged into Bing Webmaster Tools in 2011), and Yahoo Mindset, which apparently never made it past the demo stage.

5. “FindForward. If you love Google, you will probably find Philipp Lenssen’s creation very useful. Lenssen has done Google one better by creating a simple way to power search Google with the help of the Google Web APIs. All users have to do is to enter a query (FindForward supports all basic and advanced Google search options and syntax) and select the type of search desired from the pulldown list.” (pages 75–77)

Why this isn’t helpful: My own visit to www.findforward.com ended with an empty white page with one lonely string of text, “This page is currently unavailable. thanks, Philipp.” So much for doing Google one better.

So if you really want to start your own high-tech spy agency, you might want to look beyond 2007.