A new Snowden document shows that the NSA is harvesting contact lists — e-mail address books, IM buddy lists, etc. — from Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, Facebook, and others.
Unlike PRISM, this unnamed program collects the data from the Internet . This is similar to how the NSA identifies Tor users. They get direct access to the Internet backbone, either through secret agreements with companies like AT&T, or surreptitiously, by doing things like tapping undersea cables. Once they have the data, they have powerful packet inspectors — code names include TUMULT, TURBULENCE, and TURMOIL — that run a bunch of different identification and copying systems. One of them, code name unknown, searches for these contact lists and copies them. Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, etc., have no idea that this is happening, nor have they consented to their data being harvested in this way.
These contact lists provide the NSA with the same sort of broad surveillance that the Verizon (and others) phone-record “metadata” collection programs provide: information about who are our friends, lovers, confidants, associates. This is incredibly intimate information, all collected without any warrant or due process. Metadata equals surveillance; always remember that.
During 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….
Note that Gmail, which uses SSL by default, provides the NSA with much less data than Yahoo, which doesn’t, despite the fact that Gmail has many more users than Yahoo does. (It’s actually kind of amazing how small that Gmail number is.) This implies that, despite BULLRUN, encryption works. Ubiquitous use of SSL can foil NSA eavesdropping. This is the same lesson we learned from the NSA’s attempts to break Tor: encryption works.
One more amusing bit: the NSA has a spam problem.
Spam has proven to be a significant problem for the NSA — clogging databases with information that holds no foreign intelligence value. The majority of all e-mails, one NSA document says, “are SPAM from ‘fake addresses and never ‘delivered’ to targets.”
EDITED TO ADD: The New York Times makes this observation:
Spokesmen for the eavesdropping organizations reassured The Post that we shouldn’t bother our heads with all of this. They have “checks and balances built into our tools,” said one intelligence official.
Since the Snowden leaks began, the administration has adopted an interesting definition of that term. It used to be that “checks and balances” referred to one branch of the government checking and balancing the other branches — like the Supreme Court deciding whether laws are constitutional.
Now the N.S.A., the C.I.A. and the White House use the term to refer to a secret organization reviewing the actions it has taken and deciding in secret by itself whether they were legal and constitutional.