For two years, the Obama Administration conducted "bulk collections" of internet metadata—information akin to 'reading one's diary'—on Americans and foreigners alike, according to secret documents leaked by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden and newly revealed by the Guardian.
According to the documents, under the program called Stellar Wind which ran for ten years beginning in 2001, a federal judge on the secret surveillance FISA court panel would automatically approve a "collection of bulk internet metadata" every 90 days.
Though the program was stopped in 2011 (for reasons that remain unclear), what is perhaps most troubling about the latest revelations is how experts explain that the collection of "internet metadata"—which the government continues to claim is harmless—is actually the heart of how the NSA is able to infiltrate the detailed working of a citizen's private life.
"In reality, it is hard to distinguish email metadata from email content," writes the Guardian's Glenn Greenwald and Spencer Ackerman, who add that this information is much more revealing and invasive than phone metadata, which is frequently viewed by and shared with phone companies.
"The calls you make can reveal a lot, but now that so much of our lives are mediated by the internet, your IP [internet protocol] logs are really a real-time map of your brain: what are you reading about, what are you curious about, what personal ad are you responding to (with a dedicated email linked to that specific ad), what online discussions are you participating in, and how often?" Cato Institute research fellow Julian Sanchez told Greenwald and Ackerman.
"Seeing your IP logs – and especially feeding them through sophisticated analytic tools – is a way of getting inside your head that's in many ways on par with reading your diary," he added.
"Seeing your IP logs – and especially feeding them through sophisticated analytic tools – is a way of getting inside your head that's in many ways on par with reading your diary." -Julian Sanchez, Technology Research Fellow
According to a top-secret draft report by the NSA's inspector general, under the program, the Bush administration initiated a wholesale collection of internet communications "with at least one communicant outside the United States or for which no communicant was known to be a citizen of the United States."
One function of this internet record collection is what is commonly referred to as "data mining", and which the NSA calls "contact chaining". The agency "analyzed networks with two degrees of separation (two hops) from the target", the report says. In other words, the NSA studied the online records of people who communicated with people who communicated with targeted individuals.
The alleged purpose of their collection program, as detailed by a 2007 secret Justice Department memo, was initially to gain information about the online habits of foreigners. Thus when a 'chain' reached a telephone number or internet address believed to be used by a United States person, the practice was to 'stop.'
However, in 2007, assistant attorney general Kenneth Weinstein argued that if the surveillance agency was given "broader leeway" to study the online habits of Americans in the 'chain,' the information will "yield valuable foreign intelligence information."
According to the Greenwald and Ackerman, this recommendation was heeded. They write:
In October 2007, Robert Gates, the secretary of defense, signed a set of "Supplemental Procedures" on internet metadata, including what it could do with Americans' data linked in its contact chains. Mukasey affixed his signature to the document in January 2008.
"NSA will continue to disseminate the results of its contact chaining and other analysis of communications metadata in accordance with current procedures governing the dissemination of information concerning US persons," the document states, without detailing the "current procedures".
It was this interpretation of the program that continued for two years under the Obama administration, despite frequent campaign pledges of 'transparency.'
Shawn Turner, the Obama administration's director of communications for National Intelligence, refused to respond when questioned by the Guardian on additional details of the metadata program or the reasons why it was stopped.
Reportedly, a senior administration official queried by the Washington Post denied that the Obama administration was "using this program" to "collect internet metadata in bulk," but added: "I'm not going to say we're not collecting any internet metadata."