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GCHQ furor, Snowden, keep NSA in the snooping spotlight

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Protesters hold masks depicting former U.S. National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden during a demonstration in Berlin May 22, 2014. (REUTERS/Tobias Schwarz)

The controversy surrounding the National Security Agency is unlikely to fade anytime soon, thanks to a spying furor now engulfing the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in Great Britain and the continued high profile of Edward Snowden, a U.K.-based security expert says.

“I think that we will hear a lot more about the tactics of the NSA,” Michela Menting, cybersecurity practice director at the tech analyst firm ABI Research, told FoxNews.com. “It’s certainly something that’s going to run for the next year or so.”

Hot on the heels of the firestorm that Snowden, a former NSA contractor, ignited when he stole a cache of NSA documents last year and began releasing them to the press, a document that appeared to detail cyber-espionage tricks at GCHQ, the American agency’s British counterpart, was leaked last week.

The document, posted by The Intercept, which reported it had been provided by Snowden, described a host of covert online tools used by GCHQ, including ways to manipulate online polls, send spoof emails and perform denial of service (DOS) attacks on Web servers.

In a statement emailed to FoxNews.com, GCHQ declined to comment on the document and said the agency’s work is carried out within “a strict legal and policy framework.”  

The document outlined more than 100 code-named tools and projects, including “Angry Pirate,” a tool designed to “permanently disable a target’s account” on his computer, and “Hacienda,” a port-scanning tool “designed to scan an entire country or city.”

Menting said the slow release of Snowden’s documents would keep the heat on the NSA. “This trickle is more powerful, because you keep getting this constant flow of information,” she told FoxNews.com. “If you dump all the information at once, you dilute some of its potency.”

The document has also prompted speculation that NSA tools could be compromised. Security technology expert Bruce Schneier, author of “Liars and Outliers: Enabling the Trust that Society Needs to Thrive,” says that the document could prove problematic for the U.S. agency.

“My guess is that these tools are shared back and forth all the time,” he told FoxNews.com. “The countries’ intelligence agencies are very close partners – they share information and they share techniques.”

“They will be worried a little,” Menting said, but she noted that the NSA is better positioned than GCHQ to fix any compromised tools. “The U.S. has dedicated teams that they use to find their own vulnerabilities – the U.S. has more extensive capabilities in this domain than the U.K.”

In an interview transcript published by The Guardian on Friday, Snowden said British citizens are at greater risk of government snooping than people in the U.S. because GCHQ's role is not "as strongly encoded in law or policy" as the NSA's. 

Snowden also alleged that sexually explicit photos from citizens' private records were sometimes shared by military personnel working at the NSA. "These are seen as the fringe benefits of surveillance positions," he said.

He described NSA auditing as inadequate. "People talk about things that they shouldn’t have done as if it’s no big deal because nobody expects any consequences. Nobody expects to be held to account."

In an email to FoxNews.com, NSA spokeswoman Vanee Vines wrote, "NSA is a professional foreign-intelligence organization with a highly trained workforce, including brave and dedicated men and women from our armed forces. As we have said before, the agency has zero tolerance for willful violations of the agency’s authorities or professional standards, and would respond as appropriate to any credible allegations of misconduct."

Government snooping continues to cause concern across the globe. Last week U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay released a report warning that nations on every continent are hiding their growing reliance on private companies to snoop on citizens.

Follow James Rogers on Twitter @jamesjrogers