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October 15, 2013

NSA Gathering Hundreds of Millions of E-Mail Contact Lists

National Security Agency photo
National Security Agency photo

The National Security Agency is amassing hundreds of millions of contact lists from e-mail and instant message accounts around the world, including many from Americans, as part of its ongoing effort to uncover possible links to terrorism, a Washington Post report has revealed.

NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden provided the Post with top-secret PowerPoint documents revealing the agency daily gathers approximately 500,000 friends lists from chat and Web-based e-mail services.

Collection occurs when Internet users log in to their e-mail accounts, compose a message or sync their devices because, when such actions are taken, online services transmit the data across global data links.

“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,” read the Post’s report. “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.”

A PowerPoint presentation document revealed the NSA’s Special Source Operations branch nabbed 444,743 e-mail address books from Yahoo, 105,068 from Hotmail, 82,857 from Facebook, 33,697 from Gmail and 22,881 from unnamed providers — all in one day in 2012.

According to the document, such daily collection is the norm and translates into a rate of more than 250 million annually.

The method the NSA uses to collect such lists means the agency doesn’t have to inform Internet service providers of its actions or ask for their help to collect the data. That is because the data is being grabbed while in transit across the Web rather than being filched from the servers used by e-mail providers such as Yahoo, Microsoft and Google.

Rather, the NSA’s data accumulation relies on deals the agency has with overseas telecommunications companies and foreign intelligence organizations. It is through these companies and agencies that the NSA gains access to facilities that transmit data on the main lines of the Internet, the Post reported.

The NSA, according to the report, is forced to go about its collection of data in such a roundabout way because it has not been sanctioned to gather the information from U.S. facilities. U.S. intelligence officials told the publication the contact lists of American citizens are often lifted during such collection efforts. Although the Post’s sources declined to offer an estimate on just how many lists are nabbed, they said the number could well be in the millions or tens of millions.

Office of the Director of National Intelligence spokesman Shawn Turner told the Post the NSA “is focused on discovering and developing intelligence about valid foreign intelligence targets like terrorists, human traffickers and drug smugglers. We are not interested in personal information about ordinary Americans.”

The NSA has been in the spotlight since early June when Snowden first provided documents to the media outlining the scope of the agency’s surveillance programs. Citizen and advocacy groups alike have expressed outrage over the privacy violations resulting from NSA programs such as PRISM which forces via court order or National Security Letter, Internet companies like Google and Facebook to hand over subscriber data.

Documents such as those obtained by the Post call into question assertions from U.S. President Barack Obama that the NSA’s surveillance programs do “not apply to any U.S. person.”

Obama has said the NSA cannot listen in on American’s calls or read their e-mails without securing a warrant.

“If you’re a U.S. person, then NSA is not listening to your phone calls and it’s not targeting your e-mails unless it’s getting an individualized court order. That’s the existing rule,” the president said during an interview this summer.

At the directive of the president, director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper is leading a panel of experts to review the government’s surveillance programs.

When Obama announced in August such a group would be formed, many were skeptical about how effective the review would be with Clapper at the wheel.

The fact that the panel reports directly to Clapper  — who has become famous for his “No, sir” response to Sen. Ron Wyden’s (D-Ore.) 2011 question about if the National Security Agency (NSA) collects information on U.S. citizens — had many saying Obama’s choice proves he is not interested in a truly open review of surveillance programs.

Combine that with the fact that the panel’s members are not “independent experts” as Obama promised, and many are concerned the privacy of American citizens will continue to be assaulted by the NSA as the agency continues to find ways around U.S. law to gather data on its own residents.


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Jennifer Cowan is the Managing Editor for SiteProNews.

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