With every telephone call they make and every Web excursion they take, people are leaving a digital trail of revealing data that can be tracked by profit-seeking companies and terrorist-hunting government officials.
The revelations that the US National Security Agency (NSA) is perusing millions of US customer phone records at Verizon Communications and snooping on the digital communications stored by nine major Internet services illustrate how aggressively personal data is being collected and analyzed.
Verizon is handing over so-called metadata, excerpts from millions of US customer records, to the NSA under an order issued by the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, according to a report in the British newspaper the Guardian. The report was confirmed on Thursday by Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, who chairs the US Senate Intelligence Committee.
Former NSA employee William Binney said he estimates the agency collects records on 3 billion telephone calls each day.
The NSA and the FBI appear to be casting an even wider net under a clandestine program codenamed “PRISM” that came to light in a story posted on Thursday by the Washington Post. PRISM gives the US government access to e-mail, documents, audio, video, photographs and other data that people entrust to some of the world’s best-known companies, according to the Post. The newspaper said it reviewed a confidential roster of companies and services participating in PRISM. The companies included AOL, Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft Corp, Yahoo, Skype, YouTube and Paltalk.
In statements, Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo said they only provide the government with user data required under the law. (Google runs YouTube and Microsoft owns Skype.) AOL and Paltalk did not immediately respond to inquiries.
The NSA is not getting customer names or the content of phone conversations under the Verizon court order, but that does not mean the information cannot be tied to other data coming in through the PRISM program to look into people’s lives, according to experts.
Like pieces of a puzzle, the bits and bytes left behind from citizens’ electronic interactions can be cobbled together to draw conclusions about their habits, friendships and preferences using data-mining formulas and increasingly powerful computers.
CLOAK AND DAGGER
It is all part of a phenomenon known as a “Big Data,” a catchphrase increasingly used to describe the science of analyzing the vast amount of information collected through mobile devices, Web browsers and check-out stands. Analysts use powerful computers to detect trends and create digital dossiers about people.
The administration of US President Barack Obama and lawmakers privy to the NSA’s surveillance are not saying anything about the collection of Verizon customer records beyond that it is in the interest of national security. The sweeping court order covers Verizon records of every mobile and landline telephone call from April 25 through to July 19, according to the Guardian.
It is likely Verizon records are being matched with an even broader set of data, Forrester Research analyst Fatemeh Khatibloo said.
“My sense is they are looking for network patterns,” she said. “They are looking for who is connected to whom and whether they can put any timelines together. They are also probably trying to identify locations where people are calling from.”