The NSA Spy Scandal For Dummies, Via The Guardian

Frustrated trying to untangle the implications of the NSA’s spying program? A new project by the Guardian effectively explains to readers how a giant story personally affects them.

After six months of detailed yet complicated revelations about the scope of the National Security Agency’s digital spying program, the Guardian on Friday released a multimedia experience for those who haven’t been paying the closest attention, which, let’s be honest, is a lot of us.


“NSA Files: Decoded,” an interactive explainer already dubbed “Snowdenfall” in a nod to the Times‘s recent multimedia projects, distills the scope of the program into videos, calculators, spinning globes, and embedded documents that we can all understand.

At first glance, it looks like another highly produced multimedia bonanza. Unlike similar “Snow Fall” look-alikes, however, “Decoded”‘s MO is simplicity. “The whole goal of the project is to tell the story of the NSA files in an accessible and relatable way using all the tools of the Internet,” Gabriel Dance, the Guardian‘s interactive director, told Fast Company.

Like many of these bell-and-whistle-laden projects, “Decoded” risks distracting readers from the content with pictures and videos that don’t add much. Although there’s no parallax–that trendy coding feature that plays with layering–the feature has a smattering of videos from the likes of activist journalist Glenn Greenwald to Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren, interspersed with interactives. The six-part piece also embeds some of the leaked documents, including new revelations, such as communications outlining “key corporate partnerships” that give the NSA access to fiber optic cables.

Yet, the user experience doesn’t overwhelm. Each of the six sections has the same look: Minimal text dotted with short clips from experts. Unlike “Snow Fall” or similar features, “Decoded” doesn’t have any pictures. The team used green screen to film the videos so they look clean and consistent, featuring a bust against a white background, class portrait style. The clips autoplay in a useful way. Scrolling triggers the videos: Scroll too far and the video will stop. But scroll back up and it will start right where it left off.

Readers (at least on Twitter), so far, love it–even as fatigue for these splashy features has set in. Part of that success has to do with the topic. Unlike the New York Times, which uses the “Snow Fall treatment” to illustrate longform tales of adventure, the Guardian dedicated its small interactive team to explain to readers how a giant news story personally affects them. “We explain the concepts at a large scale and create an interactive element that allows the person to engage with that particular aspect and bring it back into their own lives,” explains Dance.

Of course, all of that simplicity took a lot of technical expertise and resources. The team didn’t “reinvent any wheels,” but overall it was “technically complicated.” Each of the tools was a different coding beast. “I’m just so glad it works,” Dance said.


The piece is, therefore, bursting with utility. The “three degrees of separation” tool, for example, explains the NSA’s “hops” system. The organization can spy on people “three hops” from its designated targets. According to the tool, a terrorist with the average 190 Facebook friends gives the NSA access to 5,072,916, other humans–“or more than the population of Colorado.” Or, there’s another one that shows how much metadata (data about data) Twitter, Facebook, Google, and other big tech companies collect from users. With Twitter metadata alone, the NSA can find out an astonishing amount about a user, including your location.

The Times‘s efforts inspired the project, said Dance, who worked at the paper of record for five years. But he sees his creation as a different beast. “Our project is a web native, unreplicable-in-print, interactive article,” he explained. Unlike the beautiful images from Sharks and Minnows, the Guardian production only works online. Sure, you could transcribe the videos and print the globe of fiber optic cables–but it would lose a lot of functionality, and with it, its purpose.

About the author

Rebecca Greenfield is a former Fast Company staff writer. She was previously a staff writer at The Atlantic Wire, where she focused on technology news.