Everything You Need To Know About The NSA, Explained And Visualized

The Guardian has wrapped up all its reporting into an amazing series of videos, infographics, and primary documents, that lets you understand the NSA spying scandal from start to finish.

The journalist who broke, and continues to break, the NSA Snowden leaks may be off to Greenwald-ier pastures with the launch of his exciting new journalism venture, but on Friday the Guardian published an incredible NSA explainer that breaks down and visualizes some of the newest, and most important aspects, of the Snowden revelations. If you’ve been confused, it might be a good place to start.


NSA Files: Decoded” takes a straightforward and elegant approach to summing up the wealth of leaks that have been dominating public discourse since June. It begins with a short video of congresswoman Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) arguing that how the NSA’s sweeping surveillance programs affect everyone directly–namely by violating an expectation (as guaranteed by the Constitution) of protection from unreasonable search and seizure, she says. As the piece continues, we hear from and watch numerous security experts, a former NSA attorney, journalists, and politicians explain why the average citizen ought to care.

But the explainer’s greatest strengths may be its simple video presentation and interactive graphics. For the video production, the Guardian credits Bob Sacha, the multimedia journalist who also produced Reuters’ “Bearing Witness: 5 Years of the Iraq War,” an interactive feature that was nominated for a National News Emmy award four years ago. A team of interactive reporters contributed to the graphics, which detail how metadata is collected and viewed, as well as related spying programs on fiber-optic cables.

The piece does a great job of visualizing the ripple effect that the NSA leaks have had globally, and the cast of characters in the ongoing play. Yahoo CEO Marissa Meyer and German chancellor Angela Merkel show up on the same spectrum of stakeholders affected by the leaks, as Yahoo has been criticized for handing over metadata to the surveillance apparatus, while Merkel called President Obama, furious with the allegations that the NSA had been tapping her phone.

The explainer also takes a step back from flinging around lingo to exploring what “metadata” actually means. You can also peruse the court order that demanded Verizon turn over this kind of information about its users to the government.

In addition, the piece details how the NSA’s corporate partners have complied with the agency’s information requests (see Facebook, Google, and Yahoo, among others)–along with the smaller fighters, like secure email service Lavabit, that chose to shut down rather than cooperate.

If you were looking for an NSA primer, this is it. And for everyone who said journalism was dead, here’s one suckerpunch of testimony that it’s alive and well.


About the author

Sydney Brownstone is a Seattle-based former staff writer at Co.Exist. She lives in a Brooklyn apartment with windows that don’t quite open, and covers environment, health, and data.