NSA collects e-mail address books in Internet surveillance

posted at 9:21 am on October 15, 2013 by Ed Morrissey

Remember when James Clapper and Keith Alexander insisted in Congressional testimony that the NSA didn’t collect e-mail data from Americans? Good times, good times.  The Washington Post Barton Gellman and Askhan Soltani reported last night that the NSA vacuums up hundreds of thousands of e-mail address books a day, at a rate approaching 250 million a year, in order to find links to terrorists within the data:

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.

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.

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.

Previously, the Obama administration insisted that the NSA only looked at metadata on e-mail and phone communications, likening it to reading the outside of envelopes. They weren’t looking at the content, Clapper and Alexander argued after their testimony got exposed as misleading, and so weren’t infringing on privacy.

This looks like a different kettle of fish.  This isn’t like looking at the outside of envelopes placed in the mail system, an action which courts have ruled carries no expectations of privacy. This is more akin to breaking into homes and rifling through the private address books left in the top right corner of the end table under the phone.  It’s not a fleeting look at data on outbound or inbound communications, but grabbing information from within private accounts that isn’t sent out at all — without permission, and without any probable cause.

Would that information help identify terrorists? Maybe, but that’s not the threshold of legality in this constitutional republic, either. Gellman and Soltani argue that this part of the NSA’s efforts don’t even meet their previous threshold of legality:

The NSA has not been authorized by Congress or the special intelligence court that oversees foreign surveillance to collect contact lists in bulk, and senior intelligence officials said it would be illegal to do so from facilities in the United States. The agency avoids the restrictions in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act by intercepting contact lists from access points “all over the world,” one official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the classified program. “None of those are on U.S. territory.”

Because of the method employed, the agency is not legally required or technically able to restrict its intake to contact lists belonging to specified foreign intelligence targets, he said.

When information passes through “the overseas collection apparatus,” the official added, “the assumption is you’re not a U.S. person.”

That kind of information could connect dots in more than just counter-terrorism operations.  Has this data been used in leak investigations?


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Suddenly I feel naked! Is this Hope and Change? Or is it Hope it Will Change?

Herb on October 15, 2013 at 9:34 AM

That kind of information could connect dots in more than just counter-terrorism operations. Has this data been used in leak investigations?

Or in political campaigns?

When did America morph into North Korea?

rbj on October 15, 2013 at 9:36 AM

Spy agency spies.

News at 11.

Stoic Patriot on October 15, 2013 at 9:39 AM

It’d be interesting to know how they do it, but otherwise I’m unsurprised.

It’s all about the metadata these days. Sweep up all the data you can, even if you haven’t the ability or resources to sift through it now and just categorize it for later and/or when you want that precise bit of information.

A lot like hyper-spectral scanning/images.

We are the zombies our bureaucrats are preparing for.

Logus on October 15, 2013 at 9:40 AM

It’s for your own good, the leftists explained, before hyperventilating about keeping the government’s paws off their bodies and out of their bedrooms.

You want more government, well sister this is more government, and in the immortal words of one of HotGas’s resident Bark supporters:

we’re more comfortable with Obama wielding this sort of power because he seems a hell of a lot more effective and responsible with it.

urban elitist on February 8, 2012 at 9:33 PM

Bishop on October 15, 2013 at 9:41 AM

And yet they couldn’t stop 2 guys wearing baseball hats watching a marathon after one of the guys had been handed to them on a silver platter by a foreign intelligence agency who I’m sure still does some things the old fashioned way.

Kissmygrits on October 15, 2013 at 9:44 AM

Yeah, the same govt that removed the handles from drinking water pumps in a park “to save money,” and barricaded public monuments and memorials.

That’s not incompetence, that’s misfeasance. Is it isolated in the Park Service?

Did NSA accrue your email address book by incompetence? Was it a glitch? Or does NSA think it has the right to do know everything about you? God help you if you’ve bought “too much” email order ammo.

Does anyone doubt that all info collected on us by the healthcarecalamity will find its way into the same stew that NSA et al are cooking?

Had angels collected this info for the best of reasons, and carelessly left it behind for evil men to find and use as they saw fit, would it be any less dangerous?

This battle is not between liberal and conservative, but freedom and tyranny. And no battle lasts forever.

Akzed on October 15, 2013 at 9:44 AM

Good times, good times.

This little writing device got old the second time it was used on Hot Air. Can the HA contributors please consider mothballing it for good?

BuckeyeSam on October 15, 2013 at 9:53 AM

They weren’t looking at the content, Clapper and Alexander argued after their testimony got exposed as misleading, and so weren’t infringing on privacy.

Misleading? Oh Please, Clapper and Alexander lied their asses off. If we can’t even agree on that very basic point then there really is no hope in framing what this administration is doing.

Happy Nomad on October 15, 2013 at 10:01 AM

That kind of information could connect dots in more than just counter-terrorism operations. Has this data been used in leak investigations?
Or in political campaigns?

When did America morph into North Korea?

rbj on October 15, 2013 at 9:36 AM

I’m going with 12:01pm, January 20th, 2009.

Happy Nomad on October 15, 2013 at 10:03 AM

This little writing device got old the second time it was used on Hot Air. Can the HA contributors please consider mothballing it for good?

Agreed.

HB3 on October 15, 2013 at 10:06 AM

“Would that information help identify terrorists?”

Not any more. Now they know about the program.

Leaking this stuff is criminal.

percysunshine on October 15, 2013 at 10:19 AM

They’re just being mean now. Of what possible use could there be to discover that I exchange e-mails with my cousin in Texas, or that I’ve signed up for alert e-mails from certain publications?

No one, anywhere, believes that terrorists or the Mafia or the local drug dealer is sending e-mails to anyone.
I’m old enough to remember when phone lines were shared and MrsGraber listened in to everyone’s conversation.
Didn’t do her any good, and we always ended our phone calls with ‘bye, MrsGraber’.

srdem65 on October 15, 2013 at 10:20 AM

NSA and the Obama administration thwart the constitution on a daily basis, but Snowden is the traitor according to people. If Snowden is a traitor, I tend to think this nation needs more of them, not less.

astonerii on October 15, 2013 at 10:31 AM

NSA and the Obama administration thwart the constitution on a daily basis, but Snowden is the traitor according to people. If Snowden is a traitor, I tend to think this nation needs more of them, not less.

astonerii on October 15, 2013 at 10:31 AM

Agreed. The Founders were also considered traitors.

MoreLiberty on October 15, 2013 at 10:48 AM

NSA collects e-mail address books in Internet surveillance

What’s wrong with book collecting? Wonder if they got any valuable first editions…

Marcola on October 15, 2013 at 11:42 AM

We’re more comfortable with Obama wielding this sort of power because he seems a hell of a lot more effective and responsible with it.

urban elitist on February 8, 2012 at 9:33 PM

This is the statement of a true Stage One Thinker.

Ah, he does realize that that power will still exist when Barry leaves office and Ted Cruz or Jeb Bush takes over? That it doesn’t go with Barry like the White House furniture?

And if he has a problem with that, isn’t he advocating for “Rule of Men” over “Rule of Law”?

Saltyron on October 15, 2013 at 11:43 AM

Saltyron on October 15, 2013 at 11:43 AM

Well said!

You can bet your last dollar that the likes of UE are all fine and dandy about this cuz Obama in da Spite House, but once he leaves, and it’s a Republican for President, or a Conservative, I bet ya him and his brethren will be screaming, parading, organizing against the TYRANNICAL abuses of the Republican/Conservative White House and asking for Impeachment proceedings, and to shut down the NSA…

I spit on the likes of UE… * spit *

Scrumpy on October 15, 2013 at 11:57 AM

Will the new President in 2016 campaign on retaining our 4th amendment rights? somehow I seriously doubt it…

burserker on October 15, 2013 at 12:48 PM

This by itself should be the reason Obozo is impeached and disgracefully ostracized from American society.

Do people even realize how fundamentally this is transforming our country?

And do people realize the obvious trajectory this has us on?!?!?!

KMC1 on October 15, 2013 at 12:50 PM

We live in a police state.

John the Libertarian on October 15, 2013 at 1:38 PM