How many social networks do you use today? If you’re like most Internet users, you at least have a Facebook and Twitter account. After that, you might also hop onto Google+, Instagram, Vine or Pinterest. If you really want to push your social hipster cred, you might even still rock a MySpace profile. Regardless of your social network allegiances, you all also belong to a social network that you don’t even know about.
Over the weekend, The New York Times reported that the NSA had started to build a social network in 2010 that could graph any American’s online social connections with the data it collects through its various programs like PRISM. Think of it like Facebook’s Open Graph, but it maps a person’s connections with other people through their online communications.
So, why does the NSA need a tool like this? It can already snoop on Americans’ online activities and emails. According to the report, which came from documents obtained by Edward Snowden, the government did this so it could “conduct large-scale graph analysis on very large sets of communications metadata without having to check foreignness.”
Excuse me? Did I just read that right? The NSA, an agency that is required by law to check whether or not a target is a non-U.S. person, uses this system to bypass such a requirement. What’s worrisome is that this analysis tool has been available for some time, but it could only be used on foreign communications at first over fears that it may violate Americans’ privacy. That fear was thrown out the window in 2010 when the agency started to use the same tool on Americans.
Now we know that the NSA is targeting Americans with its social graph tool, but what kind of information is the agency using to build these graphs? According to the leaked documents, the NSA pulls communication data from public and commercial sources alongside information like bank codes, insurance information, Facebook profiles, passenger manifests, voter registration rolls and GPS location information. It even pulls from property records and tax data to create a massive web of your personal and probably not so personal connections.
A leaked slide, courtesy of The New York Times, shows what that web looks like:
Like with every other revelation, the NSA was given the chance to explain itself. In this case, a spokesperson for the agency said that “all data queries must include a foreign intelligence justification, period.” That’s all well and good, but as Techdirt’s Mike Masnick points out, the NSA’s use of the word “justification” gives them broad permissions to spy on Americans. In other words, it doesn’t need a concrete foreign target to spy on Americans anymore. It just needs to have a hunch.
I don’t know about you, but a hunch doesn’t exactly sound like a solid enough justification to me. Even so, that’s not going to stop the agency. What can stop it are the numerous pieces of legislation moving through Washington, but who knows when or if those bills are going to get off the ground.