Its a common question? I mean do intelligence agencies really look at the content of your communications such as text messages, emails, pictures, video chat etc or are they more interested in the meta data of those communications such as who contacted who? Well lets start by differentiating meta data and content using a telephone example.
Lets suppose that you are talking to your friend on the phone. The content of that phone call would be the voice records of what you were discussing and talking about in that phone call. If we look at the meta data of that phone call that would be things such as the time and date the call started and ended, the phone numbers of the caller and the receiver and the duration of the phone call. Other information might include what countries those phone numbers originate from.
The main question is which of these is more desirable from an intelligence point of view? The first thing to acknowledge is that for the last 20 years the Internet has existed, most web and email traffic has been unencrypted. This is slowly being fixed with HTTPS (SSL/TLS) however there is still a good chunk of unencrypted web traffic out there and it doesn’t look like that is going to go away any time soon. For the NSA it’s an all you can eat buffet of juicy content. The honest truth is that the NSA does like content (what intelligence agency wouldn’t), however their real prize is meta data. The reason for this is that meta data allows them to establish relationships between entities and people. In the intelligence community this is known as an event which can be a suspect connecting to a website, a mobile phone calling another mobile phone etc. This allows the NSA and its FVEY (Five Eyes) partners to build a web of relationships between suspects and people or entities they interact with. This can tell a much bigger picture than content ever could.
I would say that the NSA is annoyed by HTTPS because it takes away their ability to read unencrypted data (well at least while its moving), however they perceive anonymity networks such as TOR and I2P to be a much greater threat since these networks are designed to allow people to hide their meta data trails online known as IP addresses much like laundered money can be moved through many swiss bank accounts to hide its final destination. In one of the leaked documents they even go as far as saying that “TOR Stinks” implying that they are having a hard time breaking it.
Do you use TOR, I2P or any other anonymity network? Let me know in the comments.