This Is the NSA’s 650-Page Guide to the Internet

‘Untangling the Web’ was a bizarre testament to the NSA’s understating of the how the internet worked.
May 5, 2021, 1:00pm
Demonstration against PRISM in Berlin, organised by the Pirate Party
Mike Herbst photo.

The National Security Agency’s 2007 guide to the internet begins with a description of an ancient Persian library and a fragment of analysis of a Jorge Luis Borges short story. This introduction to the 650 page document, titled ‘Preface: The Clew to the Labyrinth,” contains 8 footnotes and ends on a word of caution. “As we enjoy, employ, and embrace the Internet, it is vital we not succumb to the chauvinism of novelty, that is, the belief that somehow whatever is new is inherently good, is better than what came before, and is the best way to go or the best tool to use,” the NSA said of the internet.

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We did not listen.

Untangling the Web is a massive and comprehensive guide for the internet designed for the NSA. It covers the basics of search engines (Yahoo is good, but Google is best), tools for uncovering the “hidden” internet, and 100 pages dedicated to improving your privacy online. Much of the advice is practical and useful for the average person as well as spooks. It’s also a remarkably prescient document, the kind of thing I find myself nodding along with 13 years after it was written.

Though the document was originally made public in 2013, it's been getting some new attention on The Government Attic, a repository of government documents.

It’s primary author is obsessed with magical realist writer Borges and references his work several times throughout. After explaining the plot of Borges’ short story The Aleph, a story about a mythical center point of the universe that allows anyone present to view anywhere else in the universe, the NSA author said that all technology comes at a cost and that the internet would not primarily cost money. “We pay for the benefits of the internet less in terms of money and more in terms of the currencies of our age: time, energy, and privacy.”

It’s not that the people at the NSA were cutting edge thinkers, they just knew things that the rest of the world didn’t at the time. World government, especially D.C. and Beijing, were using the internet to build massive surveillance states. The companies we relied on to give us information and keep us safe were monetizing our every thought and action. The domestic spying apparatus born after 9/11 was using the internet to supercharge itself and compile vast amounts of information on the American public.

Muckrock first uncovered Untangling the Web in May of 2013. A month later, The Guardian would publish the first story about Edward Snowden and reveal just how much the NSA knew about the internet. Over the next year, various media outlets would feed the world a steady drip feed of news about programs with names like PRISM, MYSTIC, and Boundless Informant. The NSA recognized early how life altering the internet would be and it spent it’s time quietly building systems that would allow it to monitor anyone who touched the web.

The 2007 edition of Untangling the Web “is the twelfth edition of a book that started as a small handout,” according to the NSA. The uncredited author constantly reaffirms the inability of the NSA or any agency to catalogue, coallate, and track everything that’s happening on the internet. That doesn’t mean it isn’t trying. 

There is surely a new edition of this book at the NSA. Things have changed dramatically in the 14 years since it was written. For one thing, the NSA has gotten a lot better at using the connections we built between each other to keep tabs on us all. “The overall implications of the internet for how we work and how we play are just beginning to be discussed and understood,” the NSA said in the conclusion to Untangling the Web. “No one is out of reach of this powerful, invasive technology.”