NSA Collecting Private Data to Socially-Profile Americans

Gen. Keith Alexander, the director of the National Security Agency, testified on Thursday before the Senate Intelligence Committee. (Photo: Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press)

NSA Collecting Private Data to Socially-Profile Americans

Latest revelations based on documents leaked by Edward Snowden show how the NSA uses some of the data it collects

New reporting by independent journalists Laura Poitras, working with the New York Times' James Risen, shows that the National Intelligence Agency is using its massive data collections capabilities to develop 'social profiles' of individuals based on their telephone calls and online habits.

In a story published online Saturday and slated to appear in Sunday's print edition of the Times, Poitras and Risen cite documents made available to them by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden and report:

Since 2010, the National Security Agency has been exploiting its huge collections of data to create sophisticated graphs of some Americans' social connections that can identify their associates, their locations at certain times, their traveling companions and other personal information, according to newly disclosed documents and interviews with officials.

The spy agency began allowing the analysis of phone call and e-mail logs in November 2010 to examine Americans' networks of associations for foreign intelligence purposes after N.S.A. officials lifted restrictions on the practice [...]

According to their review of internal documents provided by Snowden, Poitras and Risen explain how the NSA uses the fruits of its massive data-mining operation to then cross-references what they can discover with other information, including "bank codes, insurance information, Facebook profiles, passenger manifests, voter registration rolls and GPS location information."

The report continues:

A series of agency PowerPoint presentations and memos describe how the N.S.A. has been able to develop software and other tools -- one document cited a new generation of programs that "revolutionize" data collection and analysis -- to unlock as many secrets about individuals as possible.

The spy agency, led by Gen. Keith B. Alexander, an unabashed advocate for more weapons in the hunt for information about the nation's adversaries, clearly views its collections of metadata as one of its most powerful resources. N.S.A. analysts can exploit that information to develop a portrait of an individual, one that is perhaps more complete and predictive of behavior than could be obtained by listening to phone conversations or reading e-mails, experts say.

Phone and e-mail logs, for example, allow analysts to identify people's friends and associates, detect where they were at a certain time, acquire clues to religious or political affiliations, and pick up sensitive information like regular calls to a psychiatrist's office, late-night messages to an extramarital partner or exchanges with a fellow plotter.

"Metadata can be very revealing," said Orin S. Kerr, a law professor at George Washington University. "Knowing things like the number someone just dialed or the location of the person's cellphone is going to allow to assemble a picture of what someone is up to. It's the digital equivalent of tailing a suspect."

The N.S.A. had been pushing for more than a decade to obtain the rule change allowing the analysis of Americans' phone and e-mail data. Intelligence officials had been frustrated that they had to stop when a contact chain hit a telephone number or e-mail address believed to be used by an American, even though it might yield valuable intelligence primarily concerning a foreigner who was overseas, according to documents previously disclosed by Mr. Snowden. N.S.A. officials also wanted to employ the agency's advanced computer analysis tools to sift through its huge databases with much greater efficiency.


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