Report: Social connections of US citizens collected by NSA

Josh Peterson Tech Editor
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The National Security Agency has been gathering the social connections of Americans since 2010, according to a New York Times report Saturday.

By allowing the analysis of every email and phone number for foreign intelligence purposes since 2010, James Risen and Berlin-based freelancer Laura Poitras report, the NSA has been able to create sophisticated graphs about people’s social connections on a massive scale.

Checking for a target’s “foreignness” was also not a requirement, and the agency would not say how many Americans were caught up in the effort.

According to a 2010 agency memo obtained by the New York Times, the NSA was allowed to retain online information collected on U.S. persons for up to five years and offline for up to 10 years.

A warrant is required for an agency analyst to actively eavesdrop on a person’s conversation, but the program allows for an analyst to use other information available to the agency to create a detailed profiles about a target.

“The agency can augment the communications data with material from public, commercial and other sources, including bank codes, insurance information, Facebook profiles, passenger manifests, voter registration rolls and GPS location information, as well as property records and unspecified tax data, according to the documents,” reports the Times.

The new information comes from documents disclosed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, as well as interviews with U.S. government officials, furthering the privacy nightmare feared by civil liberties advocates.

The agency’s Inspector General has already admitted to at least a dozen incidents in the past 10 years where NSA employees have used the agency’s resources to spy on romantic interests, nicknamed ‘LOVEINT.’

U.S. lawmakers, including Oregon Democratic Senator Ron Wyden and Michigan Republican Rep. Justin Amash, have been working to roll back the NSA’s bulk telephone records collection program.

The agency had been seeking the power to conduct such analysis since 1999, reports the New York Times, but was initially rebuffed because of  it was not permitted “under rules of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that were intended to protect the privacy of Americans.”

The Bush Administration approved the program in 2008.

“The overall volume of metadata collected by the N.S.A. is reflected in the agency’s secret 2013 budget request to Congress,” reports the New York Times.

“The budget document, disclosed by Mr. Snowden, shows that the agency is pouring money and manpower into creating a metadata repository capable of taking in 20 billion ‘record events’ daily and making them available to N.S.A. analysts within 60 minutes,” write Risen and Poitras.

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