The Surveillance Scandals

06.10.13

There’s No Story Here: The BuzzFeed Staffers Behind ‘Troll the NSA’

‘Troll the NSA’ aims to overwhelm the spy group with emails filled with ‘keywords of terror.’ The guys behind it work at BuzzFeed, and tell Eliza Shapiro they hope the NSA is listening.

A stunt to jam up the National Security Agency’s servers got its start in the offices of two BuzzFeed employees.

Chris Baker and Mike Lacher, creative directors at the news site, say they hope millions of people will send a seemingly mundane email about a bad job and travel plans to their friends at exactly 7 p.m. on Wednesday. The catch: the script, which they wrote together, is filled with words that could pique the NSA’s interest – including “bomb,” “ricin,” “radicalized,” “true believers,” and “flight school.”

Their project, with the unsubtle name “Troll the NSA,” has had 5,000 visits since it launched on Sunday, says Baker, with hundreds more visiting “every minute.”

Baker says the idea was spawned over a drink at a Washington, D.C., bar with his father, Richard Baker. They were chatting about the NSA scandals when his dad had an idea: “Wouldn’t it be funny if we could overload the NSA’s monitoring systems and just said the word ‘bomb’ over and over and over again?”

“I thought it was so funny I couldn’t stop laughing,” the younger Baker told The Daily Beast.

A spokeswoman for BuzzFeed said there is no conflict of interest since Baker and Lacher are “noneditorial employees” who did this on their own time. “A reporter on our news team actually discovered it this morning, started to report on how the site came to be, but then decided the backstory was actually too boring to merit coverage,” said spokeswoman Ashley McCollum.

“Troll the NSA” asks citizens to call the NSA’s bluff: “If millions of us, at the exact same time, call or email someone with our keywords-of-terror-filled script, we can give our nation’s impressive surveillance apparatus the kind of test it deserves. They say they don’t listen to the content of our messages. Why not test it out? It’ll be fun,” the site asks.

Video screenshot

Is Edward Snowden a "hero," "traitor," or "man of God?" Here's what YouTube thinks about the NSA whistleblower.

“It would be amazing if we actually did screw with their systems a little bit.”

Will it work? Hard to say, but here’s an outtake from the letter: “... I wish I could overthrow my boss. It’s like this oppressive regime where only true believers in his management techniques will stay around,” the email reads—emphasis on the keywords is theirs. Then: “I’m thinking of visiting all the most famous suspension bridges in the United States.”

Not surprisingly, the Internet is answering the call. “Want some fun? Let’s jam up the NSA’s scanners,” one Twitter user wrote. “I’m so in,” wrote another. Within a few hours of Baker tweeting it out, several of BuzzFeed’s own staffers followed suit: “Kinda miffed that http://trollthensa.com/ stole the exact email I was going to send to a friend of mine about me starting flight school,” tweeted BuzzFeed writer Ryan Broderick.

(Troll the NSA isn’t the only tongue-in-cheek Internet meme to poke fun at the NSA, by the way. Obama Is Checking Your Email, a new Tumblr, shows pictures of the president peering at laptops and scrolling through his BlackBerry.)

Others say the idea is neither funny nor effective. “Idiots,” one person wrote on Twitter. “I sincerely want to persuade people that this is not going to solve anything,” another user wrote, “please don’t do it.”

Baker says he’s not exactly expecting to crash the NSA’s servers—just to create a little more noise about surveillance.

“It would be amazing if we actually did screw with their systems a little bit,” he says, “but the ultimate goal is that the site itself will get enough attention ... that NSA becomes aware of it on some level and gives them a moment to reflect on their duties.”

He also hopes his fellow millennials—Baker just turned 30—will realize federal phone and email records are something they should be paying attention to.

“We’re constantly broadcasting ourselves on Facebook, Twitter, and Foursquare,” he says. “We get carried away with ourselves on these fun little websites. This is a wake-up call. It snaps us out of our social media haze.”

Then, like a true BuzzFeeder acolyte, he added: “This story will blow over as soon as the Kardashians have a new kid.”