The National Security Agency (NSA), for the past three years, has been using the phone and online data it collects to craft complex graphs of Americans’ social connections including lists of associates and travel companions, their locations and other personal data, The New York Times is reporting.
An internal January 2011 memo, obtained along with other documents from NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, revealed the NSA lifted restrictions on the previously prohibited practice in 2010. The change in policy was to aid the agency in its efforts to “discover and track” links between intelligence targets overseas and people living in the U.S.
The NSA was given permission to carry out “large-scale graph analysis on very large sets of communications metadata without having to check foreignness” of every e-mail address, phone number or other distinguishers, the Times report revealed. In the past, such analysis was only sanctioned for foreigners.
NSA officials refused to say which phone and e-mail databases are used to produce the social graphs, and the documents received from Snowden did not offer the information either.
The Times’ report is yet another is a string of revelations to go public since Snowden first leaked confidential NSA documents to The Washington Post and U.K. publication The Guardian early this summer.
The NSA, in a statement to The Washington Post, responded to The Times’ story: “We know there is a false perception out there that NSA listens to the phone calls and reads the e-mail of everyday Americans, aiming to unlawfully monitor or profile U.S. citizens.”
“It’s just not the case. NSA’s activities are directed against foreign intelligence targets in response to requirements from U.S. leaders in order to protect the nation and its interests from threats such as terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction,” the statement said.
A spokeswoman told The Times that all of the agency’s work has “a foreign intelligence purpose.”
“Our activities are centered on counterterrorism, counterproliferation and cyber-security,” she said.
The spokeswoman says the NSA bases its actions on the 1979 Supreme Court ruling that U.S. citizens could have no expectation of privacy about phone numbers they have called.
To put together its social connection graphs, the NSA uses the ‘Enterprise Knowledge System’ to “rapidly discover and correlate complex relationships and patterns across diverse data sources on a massive scale,” the documents from Snowden revealed.
The documents also revealed 94 “entity types,” including phone numbers, e-mail addresses, and IP addresses are probed by the NSA using 164 “relationship type” queries such as “travelsWith, hasFather, sentForumMessage, employs.”
Data is also mined from other sources including passenger manifests, voter registration rolls, tax info, GPS location data, bank codes, insurance information and even Facebook profiles.
NSA director, Gen. Keith Alexander along with other senior government officials maintain that the agency’s surveillance programs are not only legal and above board, but that they have been endorsed by the United States Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), Congress or both.