Not unlike the infamous 'six degrees of Kevin Bacon' game, representatives from the National Security Agency revealed before a House panel Wednesday that they are permitted under secret court rule to analyze the phone data and internet records of an individual "three hops" away from a terrorism suspect.
Testifying before the House judiciary committee, NSA deputy director John C. Inglis said that the agency's analysts can perform "a second or third hop query" through its massive store of telephone and internet records in order to find connections to terrorist organizations.
"Hops" are a technical term indicating connections between people, the Guardian's Spencer Ackerman explains. "A three-hop query means that the NSA can look at data not only from a suspected terrorist, but from everyone that suspect communicated with, and then from everyone those people communicated with, and then from everyone all of those people communicated with."
According to Inglis, this spying web is permitted under rules set by the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, or FISA court. However, those justifications remain unknown due to the Department of Justice's insistence that, because of the classified content of their dealings, the court's interpretation of the law must also be kept secret.
Documents leaked by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden and released by the Guardian previously exposed the practice of "contact chaining," or analyzing networks with two degrees of separation from the "target." Wednesday's hearing disclosures go another step further in revealing the true extent of the seemingly endless web of surveillance.