The National Security Agency has created a massive database of contact lists from email and instant messaging accounts, including millions of contact lists from Americans.
That means the NSA easily could have your email address book and list of friends on file. The agency collects an estimated 500,000 lists a day.
The database was created by a top secret collection program detailed in documents leaked by Edward Snowden, The Washington Post reported. The program intercepts email address books and contact lists from instant messaging services such as Yahoo, Hotmail, Facebook and Gmail when they’re placed online.
The revelation is significant because contact lists often contain everything about a person: the email addresses, telephone numbers and street addresses of friends, family members and business associates.
The lists are intercepted when they move across global data links. That suggests the involvement of the British GCHQ and its Global Telecoms initiative. Global Telecoms intercepts data transmitted through international telecommunications cables.
More Than 250 Million A Year
The size and scope of the program and the sheer number of contact lists collected by the NSA are staggering. The Post’s reporting suggests that the NSA is collecting so much data that the agency doesn’t know what to do with it all. Following are some details from an NSA PowerPoint presentation leaked by Snowden:
- In a single day the NSA’s Special Operations Branch gathered:
- 444,743 Yahoo email address books.
- 105,068 Hotmail address books.
- 33,697 Gmail address books.
- 82,857 lists of Facebook friends.
- 22,881 lists from other providers.
- The NSA collects 250 million contact lists a year from various sources.
- The data collected probably includes contact lists of tens of millions of Americans according to the unidentified intelligence officials.
- The spying is conducted by allied intelligence services (probably GCHQ) and foreign telecommunications companies.
- The NSA and GCHQ now have the capability to see the inbox of your email account. This is particularly true if you use email services that are cloud-based.
- “Rather than targeting individual users, the NSA is gathering contact lists in large numbers that amount to a sizable fraction of the world’s email and instant messaging accounts.”
- The contact lists are used as metadata that is used to identify and target individuals’ communications.“Taken together, the data would enable the NSA, if permitted, to draw detailed maps of a person’s life, as told by personal, professional, political and religious connections.”
- The NSA justified its violation of FISA by claiming that the interceptions are done outside the USA – which it says makes the procedure legal.
Critics say the process is a clear violation of the Fourth Amendment.
What Can You Do?
Fortunately there are some steps that you can take to preserve your anonymity online.
TOR, or the Onion Browser, is a free open-sourced browser that makes messages hard to track. Despite its corny name, TOR is highly effective. The Guardian reported that both GCHQ and the NSA are so frustrated by TOR.
“Encryption works,” Edward Snowden said. “Properly implemented crypto systems are one of the few things you can rely upon.”
That means encrypting your data can protect you from surveillance. There are also a variety of encrypted email services available.
You can also take the simple step of not putting any of your contact information on your email or instant messaging account. That won’t prevent tracking but it will at least keep some of your data from private eyes.