Joining nations in Europe, the Middle East, and South America, new reporting on Monday shows that India—one of the world's most populous nations and despite being considered one of the United States' closest global allies—has been the target of intense digital surveillance by the US National Security Agency in recent years.
Citing documents provided by whistleblower Edward Snowden, The Hindu newspaper reveals that India ranks fifth overall in terms of the intensity of NSA scrutiny, with files showing how the NSA employs two of its most potent signature intelligence (or SIGNIT) spy programs to collect billions of pieces of internet and telephonic data in the country on a monthly basis.
The first, called 'Boundless Informant' is a data-mining system that tracks and processes huge volumes of collected digital and telephonic metadata, and the second, called PRISM, which intercepts and collects actual content from the networks. The NSA operates both programs within the United States and around the globe.
As The Hindu reports:
Collection of metadata is serious business. Several Information Technology experts The Hindu spoke to said a detailed account of an individual’s private and professional life can be constructed from metadata, which is actually the record of phone number of every caller and recipient; the unique serial number of the phones involved; the time and duration of each phone call; and potentially the location of each caller and recipient at the time of the call. The same applies to e-mails and other Internet activities of an individual. The high volume of metadata taken from India — 6.2 billion in just one month — means that the U.S. agency collected information on millions of calls, messages and emails every day within India, or between India and a foreign country.
The information collected is part of a bigger surveillance system.
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According to a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) memo, an “Unclassified” and “For Official Use Only” document which has been obtained by The Hindu, Boundless Informant is a tool of the NSA’s Global Access Operations (GAO), whose motto is “The Mission Never Sleeps,” for a self-documenting SIGINT system. The tool, says the FAQs memo, “provides the ability to dynamically describe GAO’s collection capabilities (through metadata record counts) with no human intervention and graphically display the information in a map view, bar chart, or simple table”. The memo even describes how “by extracting information from every DNI and DNR metadata record, the tool is able to create a near real-time snapshot of GAO’s collection capability at any given moment.”
It’s the maps, which provide snapshots of the Boundless Informant data that actually show how intensely India was targeted by the NSA. As per one “global heat map” seen by The Hindu, just in March 2013, the U.S. agency collected 6.3 billion pieces of information from the Internet network in India. Another NSA heat map shows that the American agency collected 6.2 billion pieces of information from the country’s telephone networks during the same period.
Three “global heat maps,” which give each country a colour code based on how extensively it was subjected to NSA surveillance, clearly show that India was one of the hottest targets for U.S. intelligence. With the colour scheme ranging from green (least subjected to surveillance) through yellow and orange to red (most surveillance), the heat maps show India in the shades of deep orange and red even as fellow BRICS nations like Brazil, Russia and China — all monitored extensively — sit in green or yellow zones.
Like in other countries that have been revealed as targets of the NSA, Indian privacy advocates expressed outrage over the programs and the invasion of their digital and phone networks by a foreign power. Not only an affront to their national soveriegnty, say critics, Indians will view the NSA surveillance as an assault on their individual privacy. Even in a country of more than a billion people, the collection of consumers' metadata can set a dangerous precedent if the necessary democratic safeguards and international agreements are not put in place.
“By accessing metadata, you can learn an awful lot about an individual. With mobile phones, location data has now been added to metadata," said Anja Kovacs, project director at Internet Democracy Project, a New Delhi-based group working for online freedom of speech. "With the Internet, you can in addition understand someone’s location in a social network in much more detail, as well as understand how that network relates to other networks. If you put all of this together, you get quite a detailed map of someone’s movements, who they hang out and what drives their lives.”