October 15, 2013
NSA Gleans Global Contacts, Addresses With Help Of Internet Companies
Michael Harper for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online
The National Security Agency (NSA) has been collecting contact lists and “buddy lists” of Internet users from across the globe with help from email and web chat companies such as Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Yahoo. The system that pulls this data to create larger networks of people all over the world is so effective that in some cases it needed to be stopped so as not to overload its servers.
The Washington Post has reported on these new revelations this morning with information from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. In June President Obama claimed the NSA’s email gathering programs do not target US citizens, yet a loophole in this program allows the agency to continue gathering intimate data on regular Americans.
According to the Post, this program intercepts email and web chatting services as contact and buddy lists are sent from a user’s device to the main servers. The NSA isn’t intercepting actual emails as they flow across national borders; instead they’re piecing together the social networks of people from all over the world, including “tens of millions” of Americans.
Last month the New York Times revealed that the NSA analyzes email and phone logs to to create complex diagrams of the social connections of some US citizens.
According to information leaked by Snowden, the NSA justifies its actions by intercepting the contact lists from servers located outside the US as it targets non-Americans. US citizens are lumped in, then, when they communicate with those living outside the country. The information gathered from these contact lists is said to provide a broader picture than information gleaned from regular emails. Contact lists often contain multiple contacts for each person, including physical address, work information, phone numbers and email addresses.
The system is quite good at collecting this kind of data. Each day, this program is capable of collecting as many as 82,857 contact lists from Facebook, 33,697 from Gmail, 105,068 from Hotmail, and 444,743 from Yahoo. Another 22,881 contact lists were intercepted from an unnamed email provider. According to presentation slides leaked by Snowden, these numbers are typical of a normal day of data collecting for the service, putting the total number of contact lists intercepted at over 250 million each year. Another 500,000 buddy lists are captured from chat services and web-based email.
In fact, the service is said to be so adept at siphoning this information that it has occasionally been shut down by “emergency detasking” orders until its operators are able to get the system running again. Just like millions of Americans, spam has proven to be a nuisance for the program, sometimes clogging up the works and overloading NSA agents with advertisements rather than the foreign intelligence it is after.
When asked for a comment for this story by the Washington Post, Google and Facebook claimed they did not know that an arm of the government was siphoning this data. Since the NSA captures these contact lists as it is being transported from one location on foreign soil to another, it is not required by US law to let these companies know what it is doing or even to ask them for help.
A Facebook spokesperson told the Post the social network “did not know and did not assist” the NSA in this data collection scheme.
Likewise, a spokesperson from Google claimed, “We have neither knowledge of nor participation in this mass collection of web-mail addresses or chat lists by the government.” Of note, Google began encrypting their email connections globally in 2010, in part, according to sources familiar with the matter, to prevent this very kind of governmental interception.
Leaks over the past few months have revealed that the NSA collects chat, email and phone logs of American citizens. It’s also been revealed that the NSA has worked with several tech companies, most notably Microsoft, to work around encryption services to access the information they’re looking for.