The National Security Agency collects contact lists of email and instant message services from users worldwide, and Americans are among those whose data is being harvested.
The revelations, from senior intelligence officials and documents provided by NSA leaker Edward Snowden, were reported by The Washington Post on Monday.
The program feeds off email address books and buddy lists transmitted by various online services when users sign on, write a message, or sync their computers or mobile devices to one another, The Post reported.
Instead of targeting individual users, the lists are described as being collected en masse, in hopes of letting the spy agency map out and discover relationships between various players.
A similar NSA program mapping social ties and relationships of Americans was reported by The New York Times last month.
According to a summary provided by The Post, the harvested “contact lists” are the online address books that allow users of Gmail, Yahoo mail, Hotmail, Facebook and other online services to keep track of their friends, family and business associates.
Address books contain the email addresses of people whom users are in contact with via email or chat. In some services, including Google Contacts and Facebook, they can also include full names, addresses and phone numbers.
Many smartphones and computers allow you to “sync” your contacts to services such as Google and Facebook.
Leading web-based email services generate contact lists automatically as a result of sending, and sometimes receiving, emails. These lists allow users to compose emails more quickly via an “auto-complete” feature.
A document supplied to The Post by Snowden indicates that in a typical day, the NSA collected 444,743 email address books from Yahoo, 105,068 from Hotmail, 82,857 from Facebook, 33,697 from Gmail, and 22,881 from other providers.
Those figures correspond to a rate of more than 250 million per year, The Post reported.
Although the collection takes place overseas, two senior U.S. intelligence officials told The Post that it sweeps in the contacts of many Americans. The number is likely to be in the millions or tens of millions, The Post reported.
A spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which oversees the NSA, told The Post the agency “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.”
Ther spokesman, Shawn Turner, said rules approved by the attorney general require the NSA to “minimize the acquisition, use, and dissemination” of information that identifies a U.S. citizen or permanent resident.
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