The National Security Agency is harvesting millions of contact lists from personal email and instant messaging accounts around the world, according to senior intelligence officials and top-secret documents provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
The collection programme, which has not been disclosed before, intercepts email address books and “buddy lists” from instant messaging services as they move across global data links. Online services often transmit those contacts when a user logs on, composes a message, or synchronises a computer or mobile device with information stored on remote servers.
Analysis of that data enables the agency to search for hidden connections and to map relationships within a much smaller universe of foreign intelligence targets. During a single day last year, the NSA’s Special Source Operations branch collected 444,743 email address books from Yahoo, 105,068 from Hotmail, 82,857 from Facebook, 33,697 from Gmail and 22,881 from unspecified other providers, according to an internal NSA PowerPoint presentation.
A spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which oversees the NSA, said it was “focused on discovering and developing intelligence about valid foreign intelligence targets like terrorists, human traffickers and drug smugglers. We’re not interested in personal information about ordinary Americans”.
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