According to the Washington Post's latest documents provided by ex-contractor Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency routinely "harvests" the contact lists from email accounts, social media accounts, and instant messengers, some of which belong to American citizens.
This is the first revelation of any kind of metadata surveillance that intercepts address books and "buddy lists." The data is intercepted as the platforms carrying the emails and instant messages move between global data links, such as when a message is sent or when a user logs in or out.
The collection of contact lists does not target any individual users; instead, the NSA targets a percentage of the global population's internet accounts, and then analyzes collected data to see hidden connections and draw a map of relationships in a fraction of the time it would take without the internet.
The NSA's buddy list collection program nets half a million buddy lists per day from live messenger services and from the inboxes of web-based emails. In a single day in 2012, the NSA harvested 444,743 Yahoo contact lists, 105,068 Hotmail contact lists, 82,857 Facebook friend lists, 33,697 Gmail contact lists, and 22,881 from other providers. These figures are described by the NSA document as also being a typical daily intake.
In an attempt to reassure Americans that their online life is not tracked by NSA computers, spokesman Shawn Turner for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (which oversees the NSA) told the Washington 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. [Attorney General Eric Holder has stipulated that the NSA must] minimize the acquisition, use and dissemination [of data that I.D.'s Americans]."
It was revealed in June that the NSA scrapes nearly every U.S. call record in a different data analysis program, but NSA czar Keith B. Alexander defended the bulk collection of such data when he said "You need the haystack to find the needle.”
If you want to read the full WashPost story, you can find it here.[Image via NSA.gov]