The National Security Agency (NSA) is harvesting data from contact lists of millions of personal email and instant messenger accounts from across the globe, according to documents leaked by whistleblower Edward Snowden.
The latest Prism revelations, published by The Washington Post, reveal that the NSA collects information about web users’ contact lists as online services transmit data when users log on, write messages or synchronise their contact details between desktop and mobile devices.
Internal projections by the NSA estimate that it collects 500,000 contact lists every single day – amounting to tens of millions a year – exposing not only email addresses, but full names, telephone numbers and even home addresses of users who’ve entered that information into their online address books. Cloud based email accounts have also sometimes been known to display the first few lines of email messages.
But instead of individual email or IM messenger users being targeted by the NSA, the organisation is harvesting hundreds of thousands of contact lists at a time, which the organisation then analyses in order to establish links and relationships between targets, both in the US and across the world.
According to an internal NSA PowerPoint presentation seen by The Post, almost 700,000 contact lists were collected in just a single day during last year, without the knowledge of email and IM providers.
Yahoo users’ details were the most collected that day, with the NSA harvesting 444,743 email contact lists from the firm. Hotmail (now branded Outlook) saw 105,068 collected, Facebook had 82,857 contact lists hoarded by the NSA while the agency collected 22,881 email address lists from Google’s Gmail. Contact list information was also obtained from 22,881 other unspecified email and IM providers.
A statement from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the parent body of the NSA, said the organisation “is focused on discovering and developing intelligence about valid foreign intelligence targets like terrorists, human traffickers and drug smugglers.
“We are not interested in personal information about ordinary Americans,” it added.