NSA harvesting data from personal email and IM accounts – report

15 Oct 2013

The US National Security Agency (NSA) is collecting millions of contact lists from personal email and instant messaging accounts worldwide to discover information about “valid intelligence targets”. The revelations come from senior intelligence officials and confidential documents provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

The Washington Post reported that the harvesting programme intercepts email addresses and ‘buddy lists’ from instant-messaging services as they shoot across data links when a user logs on, writes a message, or syncs a computer or 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
  • 22,881 from unspecified other providers

Source: Internal NSA PowerPoint presentation

The agency is “not interested in personal information about ordinary Americans”, a spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which oversees the NSA, told The Washington Post, but “is focused on discovering and developing intelligence about valid foreign intelligence targets like terrorists, human traffickers and drug smugglers”.

The paper also reported a senior US intelligence official as having said Americans’ privacy is protected despite the mass collection of data, because “we have checks and balances built into our tools”.

The harvesting of email and instant messaging users’ account information, according to The Washington Post, depends on secret arrangements with foreign telecommunications companies or allied intelligence services in control of facilities that direct traffic along the internet’s main data routes.

Tina Costanza was a journalist and sub-editor at Silicon Republic