NSA Bypasses U.S. Restrictions to Gather Americans’ Contact Lists and First Lines of Content

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The National Security Agency (NSA) has been collecting individuals’ contact lists contained in email and instant messaging accounts, providing the government with vast amounts of personal information, including portions of emails and messages, names, home addresses, phone numbers, and business and family information.


Although this effort originates overseas, the compromised contacts lists and other information belong not just to foreign citizens, but also Americans, possibly millions and even tens of millions of them, according to The Washington Post.


“Rather than targeting individual users, the NSA is gathering contact lists in large numbers that amount to a sizable fraction of the world’s e-mail and instant messaging accounts,” the Post’s Barton Gellman and Ashkan Soltani wrote. “Analysis of that data enables the agency to search for hidden connections and to map relationships within a much smaller universe of foreign intelligence targets.”


The NSA collects more than 250 million address books a year, according to documents given to the newspaper by whistleblower Edward Snowden.


In just one day last year, the agency vacuumed up 444,743 email address books from Yahoo, 105,068 from Hotmail, 82,857 from Facebook, 33,697 from Gmail and 22,881 from other providers.


In addition, the NSA pulls in about 500,000 buddy lists on live-chat services, as well as from the inbox displays of Web-based email accounts, which also provide the agency with the first few lines of a message.


This data collection has not been authorized by the U.S. Congress or by the FISA Court that is supposed to oversee the NSA’s activities. Therefore, in order to maneuver around the law, the NSA intercepts the data from non-U.S. telecommunications companies and foreign intelligence services, according to an anonymous senior intelligence official interviewed by the Post.


A spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which oversees the NSA, told the newspaper that the agency is “not interested in personal information about ordinary Americans,” adding that officials are “focused on discovering and developing intelligence about valid foreign intelligence targets like terrorists, human traffickers and drug smugglers.”


“Taken together, the data would enable the NSA, if permitted, to draw detailed maps of a person’s life, as told by personal, professional, political and religious connections,” wrote the Post’s Gellman and Soltani. “The picture can also be misleading, creating false ‘associations’ with ex-spouses or people with whom an account holder has had no contact in many years.”

-Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

NSA Collects Millions of E-mail Address Books Globally (by Barton Gellman and Ashkan Soltani, Washington Post)

Snowden Leak Alleges NSA Snooping on Web Contact Lists (BBC News)

The NSA's Problem? Too Much Data (Washington Post)

NSA Reimbursed Email Providers for Unconstitutional Surveillance Cooperation (by Matt Bewig, AllGov)

How Extensive is NSA Phone and Internet Surveillance…The Latest Revelations (by Matt Bewig, AllGov)

U.S. Spies Collect 3 Billion Pieces of Intelligence a Day from Computer and Telephone Networks Worldwide (by David Wallechinsky and Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)


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