Since 2010, the US National Security Agency (NSA) has been exploiting its huge collections of data to create sophisticated graphs of some Americans’ social connections that can identify their associates, their locations at certain times, their traveling companions and other personal information, according to newly disclosed documents and interviews with officials.
The spy agency began allowing the analysis of phone call and e-mail logs in November 2010 to examine Americans’ networks of associations for foreign intelligence purposes after NSA officials lifted previous restrictions on the practice, according to documents provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
The policy shift was intended to help the agency “discover and track” connections between intelligence targets overseas and people in the US, according to an NSA memorandum from January 2011.
The agency was authorized to conduct “large-scale graph analysis on very large sets of communications metadata without having to check foreignness” of every e-mail address, telephone number or other identifier, the document said.
Because of concerns about infringing on the privacy of US citizens, the computer analysis of such data had previously been permitted only for foreigners.
The agency can 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, according to the documents.
They do not indicate any restrictions on the use of such “enrichment” data, and several former senior officials of US President Barack Obama’s administration said the agency drew on it for both Americans and foreigners.
NSA officials declined to say how many Americans have been caught up in the effort, including people involved in no wrongdoing.
The documents do not describe what has resulted from the scrutiny, which links phone numbers and e-mails in a “contact chain” tied directly or indirectly to a person or organization overseas that is of foreign intelligence interest.
The new disclosures add to the growing body of knowledge in recent months about the NSA’s access to and use of private information concerning Americans, prompting lawmakers in Washington to call for reining in the agency and Obama to order an examination of its surveillance policies. Almost everything about the agency’s operations is hidden, and the decision to revise the limits concerning Americans was made in secret, without review by the nation’s intelligence court or any public debate.
As far back as 2006, a US Justice Department memo warned of the potential for the “misuse” of such information without adequate safeguards.
An agency spokeswoman, asked about the analyses of Americans’ data, said: “All data queries must include a foreign intelligence justification, period.”
“All of NSA’s work has a foreign intelligence purpose,” the spokeswoman added. “Our activities are centered on counterterrorism, counterproliferation and cybersecurity.”
The legal underpinning of the policy change was a 1979 US Supreme Court ruling that Americans could have no expectation of privacy about what numbers they had called, she said.
Based on that ruling, the Department of Justice and the Pentagon decided that it was permissible to create contact chains using Americans’ “metadata,” which includes the timing, location and other details of calls and e-mails, but not their content. The agency is not required to seek warrants for the analyses from the US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance