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US Cyber Spies Unmasks Identities of Citizens who in Contact with Foreign Intelligence Targets

Alex Joel, a DNI official, said it was likely that the higher number of U.S. persons unmasked last year was inflated by names of victims of malicious cyber activity

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cyber spies, identities
FILE - A man types on a computer keyboard in this illustration, Feb. 28, 2013. VOA

U.S. cyber spies last year unmasked the identities of nearly 17,000 U.S. citizens or residents who were in contact with foreign intelligence targets, a sharp increase from previous years attributed partly to hacking and other malicious cyber activity, according to a U.S. government report released on Tuesday.

The unmasking of American citizens’ identities swept up in U.S. electronic espionage became a sensitive issue after U.S. government spying on communications traffic expanded sharply following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks and started sweeping up Americans’ data.

The report by the U.S. Director of National Intelligence (DNI) said that in 2018 cyber spies at the National Security Agency (NSA) unmasked the identities of 16,721 “U.S. persons,” compared to 9,529 unmaskings in 2017 and 9,217 between September 2015 and August 2016.

cyber spies, identities
U.S. person used by spy agencies includes actual individuals, email addresses and internet protocol (IP) addresses. Pixabay

According to U.S. intelligence rules, when the NSA intercepts messages in which one or more participants are U.S. citizens or residents, the agency is supposed to black out American names. But the names can be unmasked upon request of intelligence officers and higher-ranking government officials, including presidential appointees.

Alex Joel, a DNI official, said it was likely that the higher number of U.S. persons unmasked last year was inflated by names of victims of malicious cyber activity. Another official said the definition of U.S. person used by spy agencies includes actual individuals, email addresses and internet protocol (IP) addresses.

The expanded collection of data that affected Americans was exposed by whistleblowers like former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, prompting politicians and the public to demand greater accountability.

cyber spies, identities
The report says that the number of “non-US persons” targeted by the U.S. for foreign intelligence surveillance rose to 164,770 in calendar year 2018 compared to 129,080 the year before. Pixabay

Annual reports on the extent of NSA and other government electronic surveillance were one notable reform. NSA’s operations historically were so secretive that agency employees joked its initials stood for “No Such Agency.”

ALSO READ: Apple Envisions to Launch Apple TV+ Streaming Service

Not long after President Donald Trump took office, Devin Nunes, the Republican who then chaired the House Intelligence Committee, touched off a political flap by claiming intercepted messages involving members of Trump’s transition team had been unmasked at the direction of top Obama administration officials.

The report says that the number of “non-US persons” targeted by the U.S. for foreign intelligence surveillance rose to 164,770 in calendar year 2018 compared to 129,080 the year before. The report adds that not a single FBI investigation was opened on U.S. persons based on NSA surveillance in either 2017 or 2018. (VOA)

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Protect Your Digital Self in a Few Minutes a Day

Here are ways to protect your digital identity

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Digital dangers
In this growing online world, you need to protect yourself from digital dangers. Pixabay

No one can feel safe noways if you post anything online from time to time on your social media profile, or anywhere else. What kinds of after effects you might encounter if you share or leave your email somewhere? What about the things you say or express online? Don’t you think this kind of information may end in the wrong hands? Let’s find out what scary scenarios may happen to you unless you’re paying due attention to that and how to avoid being trapped into digital dangers for your identity.

First of all, let us start with the popular background check tools that use open governmental and private sources to gather all the information available about you in one place. You might be surprised by the amount of data available freely about you online and that you are not aware of it. Those types of tools fall under the Open Source Intelligence category apps. 


Plenty of lawbreakers were able to design special tools that allow parsing the information they need just like the police search tools in popular movies. Those tools scanning publicly available databases as well, that what makes them so dangerous to you. What can be done against those big data monsters? It’s quite easy to check what kind of information about you may be freely available through those OSINT tools and how easy someone fraudulent can get use of it.

Protecting digital identity
The amount of data available freely about you on the digital platform might surprise you. Pixabay

Digital footprint

Any emails you ever replied or received, every post you shared on Facebook, every selfie you uploaded on Instagram – all of that creates your digital footprint identity. Anything that was ever said or done on the Internet will stay there forever and that is one of its foundation stones. Clicking on “accept cookies policy” button will help the webmasters track the activity you perform on their websites and since this kind of info is stored somewhere, you will add that to your digital footprint. Most of the digital footprint types can be divided into two main groups: “active” and “passive”.

  • “Passive” are the ones you leave unconsciously or in some cases without even know about that. For example with the data tools such as Google Analytics, the website owners are tracking how many visits or clicks were obtained from your IP, location or country. Since most of such processes are going unnoticed and you were not going to send that data over, you may not even realize that something is collected.
  • “Active” footprints are the ones you choose to share over the web. Posts from your social media accounts or your contact details on various forums or Web 2.0 pages are classic examples of your active digital footprint. Once you log in to some shared directory from your working desk and make changes to something that is visible for everyone with access is another example of the active footprint.
Digital footprint
In case you are aware of the digital footprint you leave or simply don’t want your search history to be revealed, use Incognito mode in Google Chrome. Pixabay

How to find your online presence?

One of the most obvious ways to find yourself online is by using some of the most popular search engines like Google, Bing, Yahoo, Yandex etc. In case you are aware of the digital footprint you leave or simply don’t want your search history to be revealed, try DuckDuckGo or use Incognito mode in Google Chrome. The Tor browser is another great option to be considered.

You can also use such people search directories like Nuwber, OneRep, BeenVerified or Instantcheckmate or simlply what info you already shared on social media with the help of FB People Directory or Facebook Email Search.

What identity theft can lead to?

Financial aspect – you won’t believe that but once the information about you was leaked it may be used for years after that, leading to fraudulent activity on your credit card, cleaning your bank account, to get a job, using our SSN or get tax return instead of you.

Emotional aspect – once you reveal that your identity was stolen you might encounter such things as being in constant stress or feel anxious. In some cases, people can commit suicide as they don’t have the power to stand against that. Just imagine someone’s calling you and demanding to pay the credit you never asked. The result may be quite tragical.

Physical aspect – your identity being stolen may result in stomach pains and headaches, inability to work or think properly.

Social aspect – since we all live in a digital world, identity theft may lead to losing your job or spoiling your reputation in some cases. Once such a case is revealed, you need to ask for professional help from the governmental or private institutions, depending on the severity of a problem.

Digital self
To protect your digital self, you shouldn’t reveal your real name and data on high-risk websites. Pixabay

Simple Tips to be Safe and avoid stealing your Identity

1. Always use strong passwords. There are plenty of tools that will help you to generate secured ones and store them in safe application like Dashlane.

Also Read- Indian Consumers In Tier-2 Cities Take Advantage Of Online Transactions: Report

  1. Check whether your email was a part of a leaked emails batch by checking it on HaveIbeenPwned.
  2.  Don’t use your real name on the forums and high-risk websites, unless it’s needed.
  3. Disable sharing location option on your mobile device option.
  4.  Never use your personal and financial details in shared networks, especially public WiFi, or use secure VPN connection.

With the growth of mobile and PC traffic worldwide, the demand for all kinds of leaked data will only grow over time. To save yourself from any negative effects of the data leakage you would only need to follow the simple security rules.