The NSA is monitoring thousands upon thousands of offline computers every day. It's watching mobile phone location data. It's working on a quantum code-cracker. And if that wasn't enough a new report from the Guardian indicates it's also scooping up around 200 million text messages a day. Seemingly at random.
According to the Guardian and the UK's Channel 4 News, the text messages are snagged and analysed by projects called "Prefer" and "Dishfire" and are apparently very important to the NSA. A 2011 slide on the subject was actually titled: "SMS Text Messages: A Goldmine to Exploit."
The sweeps are also "untargeted", presumably meaning the NSA is literally just nabbing up whatever it can. Documents indicate that texts from US numbers are removed or "minimised", the latter of which may simply mean they are de-indexed for search. For now, at least.
The goodies the agency can get from them in the form of metadata are far more useful than any words they contain. According to the Guardian, the daily harvest includes:
- More than 5 million missed-call alerts, for use in contact-chaining analysis (working out someone's social network from who they contact and when)
- Details of 1.6 million border crossings a day, from network roaming alerts
- More than 110,000 names, from electronic business cards, which also included the ability to extract and save images.
- Over 800,000 financial transactions, either through text-to-text payments or linking credit cards to phone users
In a statement to the Guardian, an NSA spokeswoman insisted the collection of any US citizen's texts was purely accidental, a consequence of the exceedingly large net the agency feels the need to cast:
Dishfire is a system that processes and stores lawfully collected SMS data. Because some SMS data of US persons may at times be incidentally collected in NSA's lawful foreign intelligence mission, privacy protections for US persons exist across the entire process concerning the use, handling, retention, and dissemination of SMS data in Dishfire.
Whatever you say, guys. Whatever you say. [The Guardian]