While most of us are getting used to the idea that the National Security Agency (NSA) does a great deal of “sniffing” when it comes to our personal telephone and e-mail communications, there may be more: according to the Washington Post today, the NSA may also be collecting our contact and “buddy” lists.
The never-before-disclosed collection program apparently intercepts e-mail address books and “buddy lists” from instant messaging services as they move across global data links, says the Post. 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.
After a few years of doing this, it’s likely that the NSA has collected a large percentage of the world’s e-mail addresses and instant messaging accounts. Presumably, the goal is to search them looking for patterns that may yield information vital to intelligence agencies.
According to a heavily redacted PowerPoint presentation presented by the NSA, on a typical day, the agency collects 500,000 buddy lists and inboxes. 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. The program reportedly involves cooperation with foreign telecom services providers.
Shawn Turner, a spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, told the Washington Post that the NSA “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.”
Despite outrage from many Americans members of Congress, the NSA maintains that its data collection is a critical tool essential to counterterrorism operations. Since the agency has not received authorization from Congress to collect Americans’ contact lists in bulk on U.S. soil, the lists are intercepted from access points “all over the world,” an anonymous official told the Post.
Edited by Alisen Downey