The latest Edward Snowden leak revealed that everyone’s favorite government agency has been mapping out our social connections. They’ve been identifying our friends and associates, detecting our locations at certain times, gaining clues regarding our political and religious affiliations, and gathering information about our personal calls and emails.
Since 2010, the NSA has been gathering that social networking data on Americans and compiling it into intricate graphs like this one:
According to James Risen and Laura Poitras of The New York Times:
The agency can augment the communications data with material from public, commercial and other sources, including bank codes, insurance information, Facebook profiles, passenger manifests, voter registration rolls and GPS location information, as well as property records and unspecified tax data, according to the documents. They do not indicate any restrictions on the use of such “enrichment” data, and several former senior Obama administration officials said the agency drew on it for both Americans and foreigners.
There doesn’t seem to be any restriction on the types of data collected – or from whom it is collected. This network is supposed to be used to track the data of foreign nationals, but Americans can get tangled in the web if they are linked to a suspect’s social connections.
An NSA spokeswoman explained how this can happen:
The legal underpinning of the policy change was a 1979 Supreme Court ruling that Americans could have no expectation of privacy about what numbers they had called. Based on that ruling, the Justice Department and the Pentagon decided that it was permissible to create contact chains using Americans’ “metadata,” which includes the timing, location and other details of calls and e-mails, but not their content. The agency is not required to seek warrants for the analyses from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
PowerPoint presentations and memos from the agency detail how the NSA has been able to develop software and other tools to reveal as much information about individuals as possible. One document cited a new generation of programs that “revolutionize” data collection and analysis.
Some facts about this newly-revealed spying program:
1) The NSA is developing a “metadata repository” that can take in 20 BILLION “record events” every DAY – and this information will be available to analysts within an hour, according to a 2013 budget document disclosed by Snowden.
2) There are multiple collection programs and databases, and they rely on both domestic and international metadata.
3) One of the main tools used for “chaining” phone and email records is called Mainway. Significant amounts of data originating in the United States goes into this system.
4) An internal NSA bulletin stated that Mainway was taking in 700 million phone records per day. In August 2011, it began receiving an additional 1.1 billion cellphone records daily from an unnamed American service provider under Section 702 of the 2008 FISA Amendments Act, which allows for the collection of the data of Americans if at least one end of the communication is believed to be foreign.
5) Budget documents revealed by Snowden show that the NSA is putting a lot of effort and money into “creating a metadata repository capable of taking in 20 billion “record events” daily and making them available to NSA analysts within 60 minutes.”
6) The budget includes $394 million for an “Enterprise Knowledge System,” which is designed to “rapidly discover and correlate complex relationships and patterns across diverse data sources on a massive scale,” according to a 2008 document. This data is automatically computed to hasten queries and discover new targets for surveillance.
7) “Better Person Centric Analysis” is a top-secret document that describes how the agency searches for 94 “entity types,” including phone numbers, e-mail addresses and IP addresses. In addition, the NSA correlates 164 “relationship types” to build social networks and what the agency calls “community of interest” profiles, using queries like “travelsWith, hasFather, sentForumMessage, employs.”
8) An internal briefing paper from the NSA Office of Legal Counsel showed that the agency was allowed to collect and retain metadata and content about “U.S. persons” for up to five years online and for an additional 10 years offline for “historical searches.”
Orin S. Kerr, a law professor at George Washington University, told the New York Times:
“Metadata can be very revealing. Knowing things like the number someone just dialed or the location of the person’s cellphone is going to allow to assemble a picture of what someone is up to. It’s the digital equivalent of tailing a suspect.”
In essence, the government is building a detailed database of our daily lives.
But they are just looking out for our best interests, right?