(update below)

Under President Barack Obama, the National Security Agency has been collecting massive amounts of data on social connections between some Americans to help “discover and track” connection between “intelligence targets overseas and people in the United States,” according to a report from The New York Times. 

The story from Times journalist James Risen and freelance journalist Laura Poitras, who is based in Berlin, highlights documents obtained from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden that indicate since 2010 the NSA has used the data to identify Americans’ “associates, their locations at certain times, their traveling companions and other personal information.” The surveillance was a product of a decision by the administration of President George W. Bush to lift a restriction.

“The NSA had been pushing for more than a decade to obtain the rule change allowing the analysis of Americans’ phone and e-mail data,” the Times reported. “Intelligence officials had been frustrated that they had to stop when a contact chain hit a telephone number or e-mail address believed to be used by an American, even though it might yield valuable intelligence primarily concerning a foreigner who was overseas.” Also, NSA officials “wanted to employ the agency’s advanced computer analysis tools to sift through its huge databases with much greater efficiency.”

The power was requested “as early as 1999.” The NSA was “rebuffed because it was not permitted under rules of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that were intended to protect the privacy of Americans.”

As the Times report further details:

In 2006, months after the wiretapping program was disclosed by The New York Times, the N.S.A.’s acting general counsel wrote a letter to a senior Justice Department official, which was also leaked by Mr. Snowden, formally asking for permission to perform the analysis on American phone and e-mail data. A Justice Department memo to the attorney general noted that the “misuse” of such information “could raise serious concerns,” and said the N.S.A. promised to impose safeguards, including regular audits, on the metadata program. In 2008, the Bush administration gave its approval.

President Obama and his administration has apparently had no problem with continuing this expansion of surveillance power, even though computer analysis had previously been limited to foreigners.

The tools developed now give the NSA the ability, according to the Times,to “augment the communications data with material from public, commercial and other sources, including bank codes, insurance information, Facebook profiles, passenger manifests, voter registration rolls and GPS location information, as well as property records and unspecified tax data.”

The phone and email logs can be used by analysts to “identify people’s friends and associates, detect where they were at a certain time, acquire clues to religious or political affiliations, and pick up sensitive information like regular calls to a psychiatrist’s office, late-night messages to an extramarital partner or exchanges with a fellow plotter.”

Use of this “enrichment” data is apparently unrestricted and several former senior Obama administration officials, who were not named in the story, told the Times the NSA drew on information from both Americans and foreigners.

This “contact chaining” is additionally supplemented by something by the codename of Mainway, which is “a repository into which vast amounts of data flow daily from the agency’s fiber-optic cables, corporate partners and foreign computer networks that have been hacked.”

More alarmingly, a 2008 document describes an “Enterprise Knowledge System” designed to “rapidly discover and correlate complex relationships and patterns across diverse data sources on a massive scale.” Another top secret document indicates the NSA is correlating 164 “relationship types” to build social networks as well as “community of interest” profiles. And data from location-based services, such as “GPS and TomTom, online social networks, billing records and bank codes for transactions in the United States and overseas,” are flowing into the system for use by the NSA.

This past week NSA director Gen. Keith Alexander was asked by Senator Ron Wyden if the NSA had ever collected or made any plans to collect Americans’ cell site information in bulk. It was strongly suspected that Wyden knew the answer was yes and wanted Alexander to admit in a public hearing that the NSA had been collection some location data on individuals who were Americans. But, Alexander chose to play word games again, as the agency has done many times in the past months, say that the collection of location data was not happening “under this program.”

“Under this program” meant that under a section of the PATRIOT Act the agency was not collecting the data. It did not mean that the NSA was not collecting the data at all or had not in the past, something that was clear from Wyden’s question.

Alexander had also previously stated that the agency was not “keeping files or dossiers” on Americans. This story makes that claim highly questionable.

Both James Risen and Laura Poitras are journalists, who are in the crosshairs of the government at the moment. Risen has been subpoenaed to testify against an alleged source in a leak case and the Obama administration remains committed to forcing him to take the stand in the trial. Poitras is in Berlin completing a documentary and has not returned to the United States because she believes her work on the Snowden releases will mean she will have her work disrupted by the US government. She has a valid fear because she has been stopped at the US border multiple times before.


The reaction of American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) legal deputy director Jameel Jaffer:

This report confirms what whistleblowers have been saying for years: the NSA has been monitoring virtually every aspect of Americans’ lives – their communications, their associations, even their locations. The NSA apparently believes it can conduct this surveillance because 30 years ago the Supreme Court upheld the government’s warrantless collection of basic information about a criminal suspect’s telephone calls over the course of a single day. But the claim that this narrow case from the analog era authorizes the mass surveillance of hundreds of millions of Americans is outlandish. That the NSA’s surveillance activities rest on so flimsy a foundation is further evidence that our intelligence-oversight system is utterly broken.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."