NSA collecting 500,000 email addresses, chat-list contacts per day

government spying

There is yet another new wrinkle in the ongoing coverage of the NSA’s vast surveillance apparatus. The Washington Post reported on Monday that the intelligence agency is harvesting some 500,000 email and instant messaging chat-lists everyday, including information from Americans who are not subject of an investigation (emphasis added):

The National Security Agency is harvesting hundreds of millions of contact lists from personal e-mail and instant messaging accounts around the world, many of them belonging to Americans, according to senior intelligence officials and top-secret documents provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
[…]
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. 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.

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.

Each day, the presentation said, the NSA collects contacts from an estimated 500,000 buddy lists on live-chat services as well as from the inbox displays of Web-based e-mail accounts.

Since learning about the NSA’s datamining of phone records in early June, Americans have also discovered that the spying programs extend to roughly 75% of the Internet and that the intelligence agency has also been identifying their connections on social media accounts. We’ve also learned that the spy agency has broken privacy rules and protocols thousands of times each year and that there have been willful abuses of the programs.

Supporters of the NSA’s surveillance insist that programs are an effective tool in thwarting terrorist attack. The only problem is that the Obama Administration and intelligence officials have lied about the number of attacks that have been prevented. It’s also less than clear if the programs had anything to do with stopping the attacks.

The NSA has relied on an interpretation of the PATRIOT Act that is far outside congressional intent to gather bulk data. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI), the author of that law and a critic of the surveillance programs said last week at the Cato Institute that the spying agency has no right to collect data that doesn’t relate to terrorism.

“The government claims it needs the haystack to find a needle,” said Sensenbrenner. “But gathering the haystack — and making it larger — without knowledge that it contains the needle is precisely what the relevant standard was supposed to prevent.”

Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act (50 USC § 1861), the provision through which the NSA has claimed the ability to collect bulk data, requires that any information obtained must relate to an “authorized investigation” of a specific threat. That was intended to be the threshold. But, as Sensenbrenner explained, the administration and the NSA have created an atmosphere that doesn’t have any threshold at all.

Sensenbrenner has presented legislation, dubbed the USA FREEDOM Act, to end the NSA’s bulk data collection programs. Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR), Rand Paul (R-KY), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), and Mark Udall (D-CO) have also unveiled their own proposal to protect Americans’ privacy.

If you thought that the revelations of these spying programs couldn’t get any worse, Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who has worked with Edward Snowden to bring these programs to light, has recently told Time that the “most shocking and significant stories” are still in the works.


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