Can You Answer All of These Questions About the NSA?

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Geoff Hoppe

6 Min Quiz

Image: Photography by Stuart Mackenzie / Moment / Getty Images

About This Quiz

Founded in 1952, the National Security Agency has been responsible for collecting vital information for decades. But as one of America's premiere cloak-and-dagger organizations, information about the NSA is not easy to come by. 

The NSA has been responsible for cracking enemy codes, encrypting vital American communications and even alerting America to Soviet spies who sought to steal American nuclear secrets. While the NSA has come under fire in the second decade of the 2000s, that controversy is merely one part of the longer history of the National Security Agency. 

The NSA has been involved in the development of computers, codes, espionage and even satellite technology that have helped protect the United States. Thanks to their work, America was able to keep up with the Soviet Union during the darkest days of the Cold War. On the other hand, some cite NSA programs as examples of overreaching. Whichever side of the debate you lean toward, the only way to make an informed decision is to first see just how much you know about America's most secret spy agency.

Can you ferret out the necessary facts to piece together a picture of the National Security Agency? 

In what year was the NSA founded?

The NSA was formally founded on Nov. 4,1952. While it was officially created by Harry Truman in 1952, the NSA started as a code-breaking unit in WWII.

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Where is the NSA headquarters?

The NSA is headquartered at Fort Meade, in Maryland. The NSA's facilities require so much power that, in 2007 at least, they used as much electricity as the city of Annapolis, Maryland.

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Which NSA project decoded Soviet communications, and has been called a "central reference point" for anti-Soviet counter-intelligence?

Project Venona was an NSA project that decoded communications from Soviet intelligence agencies and departments, including the KGB. Information gained from Project Venona was invaluable for demonstrating Soviet spies' basic operating methods.

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What mysterious-sounding organization, founded in 1919, was the forerunner of the NSA?

The Black Chamber was founded in May of 1919. From the beginning, employees were told to maintain an air of secrecy, and only say they translated documents for the War Department. The Black Chamber's first major achievement was cracking a Japanese code in December of that same year.

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What Indianan was responsible for the creation of the NSA's forerunner?

Herbert Yardley was the founder of the NSA's forerunner. He got his start by writing a "Solution of American Diplomatic Codes," an analysis/takedown of codes currently used by the American government.

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Where were the NSA's headquarters going to be, until too many employees objected?

Original plans put the NSA at Fort Knox. Civilian employees who lived in the D.C. area objected to moving, however. A site closer to D.C. was found to ensure the civilian employees wouldn't leave the agency.

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Which NSA director is famous for centralizing different military cryptologic units under NSA authority?

Lt. Gen.l Ralph Canine was the first director of the NSA. He is called "the Great Unifier" for how he brought disparate code-breakers under his authority. He is also responsible for helping NSA employees make higher salaries, and pay for higher education.

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What is the formal name for the study of code-breaking?

Cryptography is the formal name for writing, and deciphering, codes. The NSA headquarters are actually home to the National Museum of Cryptography. The museum's collections include everything from Civil War era telegraphs to items that deal with Hobo code language.

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The NSA is currently experimenting with this field, which builds on revolutionary ideas in physics.

The NSA is currently experimenting with quantum computing. Quantum computing considers multiple possibilities, rather than the standard two possibilities most computers consider.

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Which NSA contractor famously exposed classified intelligence documents in 2013?

Edward Snowden absconded from his NSA job with classified documents copied to flash drives. These documents provided evidence of U.S. surveillance of its own citizens' communications. Snowden was granted asylum by Vladimir Putin, and still lives in Russia.

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Where is the NSA's massive new data storage facility?

The NSA Data Center is located near the town of Bluffdale, Utah. The Data Center houses countless servers. The location's computing power is three times greater than the most advanced super computer on earth, according to The Salt Lake City Tribune.

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Which NSA project's goal was to increase computer speed?

Project Lightning was started in 1957. Its goal was to increase computing speed, which it accomplished 100-fold, by one estimate. The research done as part of Project Lightning found its way into 320 patent applications.

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Which NSA project created a think tank focused on solving cryptologic challenges?

Project Focus created a think tank, whose sole purpose was to help the NSA. The think tank's research would be secret, rather than public.

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Which NSA body brought academics and government cryptographers together, so the NSA could keep up with new research?

The NSA Scientific Advisory Board (NASSAB) was created to help NSA cryptographers keep abreast of cutting-edge cryptographic research. The panel consists of 10 people, and meets twice yearly at NSA headquarters.

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Which director of the NSA was appointed in May 2018?

General Paul Nakasone is the current director of the NSA. He previously served with the U.S. Army's Cyber Command.

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Which longtime NSA deputy director got the name "Dr. No" for his tendency to refuse proposals?

Louis Tordella, NSA deputy director from 1958 to 1974, was nicknamed Dr. No. He had an unusually long 16-year tenure as deputy director. Tordella's long time in the job also reassured foreign powers nervous about working with the NSA.

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Which initiative, founded in 1966, was effectively an early warning system for any sort of international military threat?

The Defense Special Missile and Astronautics Center (DEFSMAC) is the NSA group tasked with first catching security threats. They focus particularly on missile and satellite launches. DEFSMAC depends heavily on NSA satellites to determine missile launches and trajectories.

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What two-word alliterative nickname has been applied to the NSA?

The NSA is also known as the "puzzle palace." The term gained notoriety in a 1982 book by James Bamford.

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What was the nickname for the giant antenna arrays the NSA used to intercept foreign signals?

The massive antenna collections were called "elephant cages." Each consisted of nearly 100 13-story antenna towers.

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Which of the following%0Dwas one of the first instances of public knowledge of the NSA?

The 1954 indictment of Joseph Petersen for giving information to the Dutch was an early instance where the American public learned of the NSA's existence. For years, Petersen was paid at least $5,000 annually to smuggle information out of NSA headquarters and give it to a Dutch contact.

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Did the amount of phone call data collected by the NSA in 2018 increase from 2017, or decrease?

In 2017, the NSA collected three times as many phone records as it did in 2016. In 2016, the NSA collected roughly 150 million "call detail records." In 2017, that number grew to about 530 million.

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Which NSA director took over in 1977, restructured the agency's system of promotions, and helped navigate NSA-congressional relations?

Admiral Robert Inman was NSA director from 1977 to 1981. He took office at a time when Congress became more involved in oversight of the NSA.

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Which committee's report determined that the NSA's work was integral to American intelligence, and that this work would require outside help?

The Baker Committee's recommendations included making the NSA's cryptographic work a major government priority. The Baker Committee first met in 1957.

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Which NSA project monitored all telegraphs sent to, or from, America?

Project Shamrock began toward the end of WWII, when an Executive Order removed much of the NSA's ability to monitor American communications. In response, Brigadier General W. Preston Corderman asked major communications companies for access to their telegraphs.

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Which airplane, used from the 1960s to 1990, became an important asset in data collection for the NSA?

The SR-71 Blackbird was an important source of information for the NSA through the 1970 and 1980s. The plane can fly faster than Mach 3.

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What was the nickname assigned to satellites whose information was used by the NSA?

The NSA used information from "ferret" satellites, most likely starting in 1962, which picked up signals from foreign countries. The satellites are nicknamed "ferrets" for how they "burrow" into an enemy's radar range, as ferrets burrow after their prey.

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Which class of satellite allowed the NSA to monitor microwave communications?

Rhyolite satellites could pick up microwave frequencies, which meant they could listen in on phone calls. The satellites picked up so much information that there weren't enough analysts to handle everything that came in. The Rhyolite satellites were later renamed "Acquacade."

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What listening station in Iran allowed the NSA to monitor Soviet missile launches?

The Tracksman 2 station, in rural Iran, provided the NSA with important intelligence on Soviet missiles. This information also helped the U.S. make sure the USSR was following ballistic missile treaties.

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Which 1978 legislation curtailed the powers of the NSA, and other intelligence agencies?

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 regulated the NSA's ability to collect information. Under FISA, the NSA would have to get the approval of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court before they monitored communications.

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Which West Virginia site is the location of one failed NSA project, but is still used as a listening post?

Sugar Grove, WV, was the site of the planned "Big Ear," a 600-foot satellite dish. While the Big Ear was never constructed, the NSA still found use for the site, again commandeering it in 1975.

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Which surveillance program, formally begun in 1971, was started to monitor the Soviet Union and its allies?

Project Echelon is a joint project of "the Five Eyes," which include the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the UK. It is suspected that ECHELON is used to listen in on communications satellites.

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Which NSA program gathers intelligence from internet companies?

PRISM is the name for the NSA project that legally collects foreign information collected on the servers of American internet companies. The project became well-known following Edward Snowden's disclosures.

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Which surveillance program, begun shortly after 9/11, allowed the NSA to monitor domestic communications?

Stellar Wind was an NSA project to monitor domestic communications. Financial data, telephone data and internet data were all collected.

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The NSA seal depicts an eagle holding what object?

The NSA seal shows an eagle holding a key. The key represents the NSA's attempt to "unlock" encrypted communications.

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NSA communications intercepts provided the necessary justification for the bombing of what African dictatorship?

NSA intercepts provided justification for the bombing of Libya during the 1980s. NSA data showed that Libya was behind the 1986 bombing of a West Berlin nightclub.

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