US National Security Agency

US spy agency harvesting millions of e-mail contact lists, says Snowden

Latest Snowden leak says many of those caught up in US spy agency's global dragnet are Americans, despite the practice being illegal

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 15 October, 2013, 10:21am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 16 October, 2013, 10:32am

The US National Security Agency is harvesting hundreds of millions of contact lists from personal e-mail and instant messaging accounts around the world, many belonging to Americans.

That's according to senior intelligence officials and top secret documents provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

The collection programme, which has not been disclosed before, intercepts e-mail address books and "buddy lists" from instant messaging services. Online services often transmit those contacts when a user logs on, composes a message, or synchronises 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 sizeable fraction of the world's e-mail and instant messaging accounts. Analysis of that data enables the agency to search for hidden connections and map relationships within a much smaller universe of foreign intelligence targets.

On 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. This means 250 million would be gathered in a year.

Each day, the presentation said, the NSA collects contacts from an estimated 500,000 buddy lists on live-chat services as well as from the inbox displays of web-based e-mail accounts.

The collection depends on secret arrangements with foreign telecommunications companies or allied intelligence services in control of facilities that direct traffic along the internet's main data routes.

Although the collection takes place overseas, two senior US intelligence officials acknowledged that it sweeps in the contacts of many Americans. They declined to offer an estimate but did not dispute the number is likely to be in the millions or tens of millions.

A spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which oversees the NSA, said the agency "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."

The NSA's collection of nearly all US call records, under a separate programme, has generated significant controversy since it was revealed in June. The NSA's director, General Keith Alexander, has defended "bulk" collection as an essential counterterrorism and foreign intelligence tool, saying "you need the haystack to find the needle".

The NSA has not been authorised 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.