NSA Collects Online Address Books and Buddy Lists

The agency captures contacts when they're transmitted across global servers, dodging domestic requirements mandating prior authorization for data collection inside the U.S.

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Patrick Semansky / AP

This June 6, 213 file photo shows the sign outside the National Security Agency (NSA) campus in Fort Meade, Md.

Senior intelligence officers and leaked documents from National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden reveal that the NSA is amassing millions of contacts via online address books and instant-messaging buddy lists.

The program, under NSA’s Special Source Operations branch, collects more than 250 million contacts in its database per year. A single day’s data found that the agency accumulated 444,743 email address books from Yahoo, 105,068 from Hotmail, 82,857 from Facebook, 33,697 from Gmail and 22,881 from miscellaneous providers, the Washington Post reports. NSA officials also gather contacts from 500,000 buddy lists and web-based mail inboxes, according to an internal PowerPoint presentation

New revelations reveal how the agency casts a wide global net rather than individually targeting people, capturing contacts as users log on and data is transmitted across international servers. Because the program takes place overseas, NSA is not required to notify U.S. companies of its activity. Nonetheless, it often picks up American contacts as well. The database is dependent on arrangements with foreign telecom companies that control traffic on the internet’s global data points.

The Post added that the NSA has not been granted authorization by Congress or the special intelligence court, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, to collect contacts. By acquiring the contacts as they’re transmitted abroad, the NSA avoids breaking the law. However, U.S. residents are just as vulnerable to the program, as companies like Google and Yahoo have servers located throughout the world to assist with bandwidth and traffic. Therefore, the NSA is collecting contacts from Americans who’ve never left their homes.

Commenting on the new data-collection revelations published Monday night, a spokesperson for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence told the Post that the NSA “is focused on discovering and developing intelligence about valid foreign intelligence targets like terrorists, human traffickers and drug smugglers. We are not interested in personal information about ordinary Americans.”

[Washington Post]