Does the National Security Agency, one of the most secretive agencies of the U.S. government, use Slack, the all-consuming chat app that for many of us has become our primary form of human contact? Yes, absolutely—and not only that, they use an off-the-shelf version. Do we know what the NSA is using it for? Absolutely not.
In response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by VICE, in which we requested all the Slack domains that NSA staffers are currently using at work, the NSA said that they do have the information we want—in other words, the NSA has a list of its Slack domain(s) because Slack is indeed in use by the agency. But the agency also refused to tell us what Slacks it's operating because doing so would reveal state secrets.
(We suppose it’s possible that the relevant information the NSA has is just a piece of paper that says “we don’t use Slack,” but it would be very odd for an agency to then respond this way to a FOIA. If any agency has no information on something, or isn't doing the thing we're asking about, we’d normally expect the agency to say it has “no responsive records” or to avoid sharing anything altogether by giving a Glomar response.)
When we asked the NSA's press department if they could just tell us what their Slacks are, a press liaison responded, "It’s unlikely that Security will agree to providing a clearer insight to our day-to-day workflow due to the nature of the work we do. The more information that is made public benefits our adversaries and we’re just not going to do that." When reached for comment, Slack wouldn't tell us what its relationship with the NSA is, or what Slacks the agency is operating, because Slack doesn't give out information on customers without their consent.
Why does any of this matter? Well, the NSA has little oversight and plenty of power to monitor and surveil the digital communications of pretty much everyone on Earth. It's been six years since Edward Snowden helped reveal the NSA's massive data collection campaign, which caught up millions of Americans thanks to a rubber-stamp approach to oversight from the secret court governing the NSA's spy activities. This all was legalized via the Patriot Act and Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, and became a flashpoint for criticism of the Obama administration and its drones-and-data approach to the War on Terror. Given the weekly scandals of the Trump administration, the entire national security apparatus has fallen out of the public's consciousness, but the NSA is still there, and still spying.
We were hoping to get the name of the Slack in part so that we could then ask for the names of the channels in use in it, and so glean a bit of insight into what NSA staffers do all day. #nsa-proof-aliens-exist would be a bit much to hope for, as would a channel devoted to the interests of NSA employees intent on using the agency’s capabilities for personal ends, but you never know.
(We were also hoping to find a channel for the agency’s softball team, and a way to spam that Slack with challenges from VICE's team. Oh well, we're pretty sure they know how to contact us.)
For its part, Slack said that "many local, state and government agencies and legislatures" use the service, but wouldn't tell us how much money it makes from government usage. It’s not nothing: According to one government spending tracker, Slack has over $1.2 million worth of contracts with the Department of State. That same tracker shows less than $200,000 of contracts with the Department of Defense, none of which include the NSA. (It would be funny if the NSA refused to tell us about its Slacks because it doesn't want to get caught using the free version.) Whatever the nature of the arrangement, it seems clear the NSA isn't using some super-secret secure version of Slack. According to a Slack representative, the company "[doesn't] provide custom versions for specific customers."
Presumably—hopefully?—that means the NSA isn't conducting sensitive work on Slack, despite the Agency's claim that telling us about their Slacks would be a national security risk. It's a frustrating example of how the broad blanket of national security can be used as a cudgel against even the most lighthearted attempts at figuring out what the government is doing, but hey, it's not like the NSA is transparent about anything.
With additional reporting from Tim Marchman.