Like WikiLeaks, Edward Snowden is turning out to be the gift that keeps on giving. The Washington Post reported late yesterday that top-secret documents provided by Snowden reveal that the National Security Agency is harvesting hundreds of millions of contact lists from personal email and instant messaging accounts around the world, many of them belonging to Americans.
The collection program, which has not been disclosed before, intercepts e-mail address books and ‘buddy lists’ from instant messaging services as they move across global data links. Online services often transmit those contacts when a user logs on, composes a message, or synchronizes a computer or mobile device with information stored on remote servers….
During a single day last year, the NSA’s Special Source Operations branch collected 444,743 e-mail address books from Yahoo, 105,068 from Hotmail, 82,857 from Facebook, 33,697 from Gmail and 22,881 from unspecified other providers, according to an internal NSA PowerPoint presentation. Those figures, described as a typical daily intake in the document, correspond to a rate of more than 250 million a year.
According to the presentation, each day the NSA collects contacts from an estimated 500,000 buddy lists on live-chat services along with from the inbox displays of email accounts. This is done via secret arrangement with foreign telecommunications companies or allied intelligence services in control of facilities that direct traffic along the internet’s main data routes.
But as LU contributor Jeff Dunetz notes at his Yid With Lid blog, the “fun” part of the revelation is that the NSA has not been authorized by Congress or the FISA court to collect this information from American facilities — a minor landmine that the agency sidesteps by collecting the data from contact lists from access points “all over the world.” According to an official speaking on the condition of anonymity, “None of those are on U.S. territory.”
Shawn Turner, a spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which oversees the NSA, reaffirmed the administration’s earlier claim that the snooping 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.” In short, don’t worry, be happy (until a couple of brawny dudes in black suits and sunglasses show up at your door).