The National Security Agency has used its massive collections of electronic data to create a graphic analysis of some American citizens’ social connections including travel, location, associates and even Facebook ties, a published report said Saturday.
The New York Times reports that the super-secret electronic spy agency has developed sophisticated graphs of social connections based on phone call metadata and e-mail logs since beginning the project in November 2010.
The newspaper based its report on documents provided by Edward Snowden, the former agency contractor who leaked classified details of U.S. and British government surveillance.
The analysis resulted from a policy shift by top agency officials aimed at helping to identify and track connections between foreign intelligence targets and Americans with whom they communicate.
The report said the agency was authorized to conduct “large-scale graph analysis on very large sets of communications metadata without having to check “foreignness” of every e-mail address, phone number or other identifier. Previously, such analysis of data had been permitted only for foreigners because of concerns about the privacy of American citizens.
The agency’s analysis includes data collected from public, commercial and other sources including Facebook profiles, bank and insurance information, passenger manifests, voter registration, GPS location data, property records and tax data, according to the documents.
An agency spokeswoman, asked about the analyses of Americans’ data, said, “All data queries must include a foreign intelligence justification, period.”
“All of NSA’s work has a foreign intelligence purpose,” the spokeswoman told the newspaper. “Our activities are centered on counterterrorism, counterproliferation and cybersecurity.”
An American Civil Liberties Union official blasted the NSA efforts as “outlandish” and said the spy agency had gone far beyond judicial authorization in monitoring private communications and “virtually every aspect of Americans’ lives.”
“The NSA apparently believes it can conduct this surveillance because 30 years ago the Supreme Court upheld the government’s warrantless collection of basic information about a criminal suspect’s telephone calls over the course of a single day,” said Jameel Jaffer, ACLU’s deputy legal director.
“But the claim that this narrow case from the analog era authorizes the mass surveillance of hundreds of millions of Americans is outlandish,” he said. “That the NSA’s surveillance activities rest on so flimsy a foundation is further evidence that our intelligence-oversight system is utterly broken.”
NSA officials declined to say how many Americans were involved. The documents do not describe what has resulted from the scrutiny, the report said.
The report follows earlier disclosures about massive data collection efforts by U.S. electronic spy operations that have prompted calls by members of Congress in both parties to place new limits on the agency.