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Documents reveal unprecedented level of NSA data record collection (Photo: Steve Rhodes)

Snowden Documents Reveal NSA's 'Own Secret Google'

Agency has been sharing more than 850 billion telecom records on foreigners and U.S. citizens with law enforcement, documents reveal

Nadia Prupis

The National Security Agency has for years been giving hundreds of billions of telecommunications records about foreigners and U.S. citizens to dozens of government bureaus, the Intercept reported on Monday.

Documents linked to Edward Snowden's leak last year, obtained by the Intercept, show the NSA shared and continues to share more than 850 billion records of emails, cell phone calls and locations, internet chats, and other metadata sent and received by people throughout the world — who have not been accused of any wrongdoing — by using a "Google-like" search engine called ICREACH, which was built specifically for the agency.

According to a 2010 CIA memo on the program, which agency colleagues "enthusiastically welcome[d]," over 1,000 analysts from 23 government agencies had access to the NSA’s cache of information, all of which was collected without a warrant. Records were regularly shared with the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the  CIA, and the Defense Intelligence Agency, among other bureaus, the documents reveal.

"The ICREACH team delivered the first-ever wholesale sharing of communications metadata within the U.S. Intelligence Community," a 2007 top-secret memo said. "This team began over two years ago with a basic concept compelled by the IC’s increasing need for communications metadata and NSA’s ability to collect, process and store vast amounts of communications metadata related to worldwide intelligence targets."

ICREACH appears to be a separate entity from the NSA database previously reported to collect phone records of millions of Verizon customers every day under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, the Intercept said. Rather, the search engine "grants access to a vast pool of data that can be mined by analysts from across the intelligence community for 'foreign intelligence'—a vague term that is far broader than counterterrorism."

Jeffrey Anchukaitis, a spokesperson for the Director of National Intelligence, defended the government's widespread spying, stating that sharing information has become "a pillar of the post-9/11 intelligence community."

The Intercept reports that ICREACH was built under the direction of former NSA director Gen. Keith Alexander, and was created to "allow unprecedented volumes of communications metadata to be shared and analyzed," and give a "vast, rich source of information" to other agencies to exploit.

ICREACH evolved out of Project CRISSCROSS, a secret CIA-DEA joint initiative created in the early 1990s to identify and target narcotics suspects in Latin America. But by 1999, access to Project CRISSCROSS had expanded to include the NSA, the DIA, and the FBI, who also contributed to the database. Eventually, a supplemental system called PROTON was installed to support new information as analysts began to store more and more invasive data, including codes that could identify individual cell phones, passport and flight records, visa applications, and information from CIA intelligence reports. In July 2006, the NSA estimated that it was storing 149 billion phone records on PROTON, the Intercept says. Over time, even PROTON was not sufficiently advanced technology to store and cull all the data it held and gathered every day, leading to the creation of ICREACH.

But ICREACH may hold even more records than what is currently estimated. The Intercept writes:

While the NSA initially estimated making upwards of 850 billion records available on ICREACH, the documents indicate that target could have been surpassed, and that the number of personnel accessing the system may have increased since the 2010 reference to more than 1,000 analysts. The intelligence community’s top-secret “Black Budget” for 2013, also obtained by Snowden, shows that the NSA recently sought new funding to upgrade ICREACH to “provide IC analysts with access to a wider set of shareable data.”

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