BREAKING: N.S.A. Had Direct Access to Elf on the Shelf Surveillance

By James Grimmelmann

Posted on December 24, 2013


WASHINGTON — Internal documents from the National Security Agency show that its intelligence-gathering reached far deeper into Santa Claus’s annual toy-distribution operations than acknowledged. Sources close to the agency had previously confirmed that it has been provided with the contents of Mr. Claus’s database of naughty and nice children under a confidential data-sharing arrangement. But according to the documents, which were among those leaked by Edward Snowden, the N.S.A. also has direct access to one of the North Pole’s most closely guarded sources for that database, the daily field reports filed by Elf on the Shelf agents.

Since 2005, Mr. Claus has outsourced much of his behavioral analytics research to the Elves on the Shelves. Employing sophisticated surveillance technology, the Elves inform Santa about children’s toy-worthy activities — or, in some cases, recommend the delivery of coal, instead. Parents are encouraged to provide the Elves with access to strategic vantage points from which they can observe a wide range of daily household activities. Playtime, naptime, mealtime: nothing escapes the Elves’ watchful gaze.

Or the N.S.A.’s, it appears. Under a program codenamed NSANTA, the agency has surreptitiously installed wiretapping devices inside the North Pole data center through which all communications to and from the rest of the world pass. The devices are custom-designed to identify and copy all incoming reports from an Elf, no matter where its Shelf happens to be located. Those reports include detailed information on the whereabouts and conduct of millions of American children, most of whom are not believed to have engaged in terrorist activities, except perhaps against their younger siblings.

According to the slides, which the N.S.A. has not acknowledged as authentic, no special legal authority is required for the interceptions. The North Pole, being outside the United States, is not subject to many of the restrictions that apply on American soil. (His freedom from regulation has long been a complaint of Mr. Claus’s competitors in the toy industry, and was partly responsible for the War on Christmas of 2003 to 2006.) And because Elf reports are filed from countries around the world, the N.S.A. can maintain that it is not “knowingly” collecting information on the hair-pulling, cat-chasing, or cookie-stealing of American children.

It is unclear whether the the interceptions are taking place with the knowledge or consent of North Pole authorities. Mr. Claus has long had a tense relationship with the United States government. Some have speculated that NORAD was able to extract extensive concessions in 2010, when the most recent treaty allowing him access to United States airspace was negotiated. Vixen and Comet have alleged that they were placed on the no-fly list in 2006 after delivering presents to Middle Eastern countries, and the Transportation Security Administration has confiscated millions of plastic toy guns from Mr. Claus’s sleigh.

In a written statement, a North Pole spokes-elf said, “Santa takes the privacy of all children seriously. He will be looking into these allegations with a wink of his eye and a twist of his head. Parents everywhere can be assured that Santa uses industry-standard security measures.” When asked to respond to claims by leading security researchers that children’s letters to Mr. Claus are vulnerable to “grinch in the middle” attacks, the elf referred reporters to her previous statement.

For one long-time N.S.A critic, the latest revelation is a vindication. In a 2011 blog post, privacy researcher Christopher Soghoian suggested that some members of the Elf on the Shelf program might be undercover government agents looking to circumvent Fourth Amendment protections against searches of the home. But the scale of the NSANTA program surprised even Mr. Soghoian. “Watching children around the clock is a job that their own parents have decided is not worth doing,” he said. “The people who know best have concluded that this data has no intelligence value. So why is the N.S.A. so interested in it?”

But for defenders of the embattled agency, the Elf on the Shelf news was no news. According to the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Representative Mike Rogers, “You know children. They’re always up to something. All of them.” Mr. Rogers, Republican of Michigan, added that his family has an Elf on the Shelf. “And this Christmas, we’re putting him on our mantel, and our refrigerator, and yes, even on our shelf. We’re doing it with pride, knowing that it helps keep our children safe.”

The N.S.A. declined to comment for this story.

The preceding is re-published on TAP with permission by its author, Professor James Grimmelmann. “BREAKING: N.S.A. Had Direct Access to Elf on the Shelf Surveillance” was originally published December 15, 2013 on The Laboratorium. The Laboratorium publishes under the Creative Commons License.



About the Author

Recent TAP Bloggers