NSA maps some Americans' social connections, says report

National Security Agency dips into its database of phone and e-mail info to create complex "social graphs" for foreign intelligence purposes, says a report. Some American citizens get swept up in the effort.

Edward Moyer Senior Editor
Ed is a many-year veteran of the writing and editing world who enjoys taking sentences apart and putting them back together. He also likes making them from scratch. For nearly a quarter of a century, he's edited and written stories about various aspects of the technology world, from the US National Security Agency's controversial spying techniques to historic NASA space missions to 3D-printed works of fine art. Before that, he wrote about movies, musicians, artists and subcultures.
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Edward Moyer
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NSA Director Keith Alexander Win McNamee/Getty Images

Facebook, Google, and other tech firms apparently aren't the only ones who've been fascinated by the potential of "social graphs" -- maps of people's social connections. The NSA has reportedly been tapping its giant repositories of phone and e-mail data to create complex diagrams of some Americans' interactions, including lists of associates and travel companions; location info; and other personal data.

The US National Security Agency has, The New York Times reports, been creating such graphs since 2010, using setups like the "Enterprise Knowledge System" -- which, according to a leaked document referenced by the Times, is designed to "rapidly discover and correlate complex relationships and patterns across diverse data sources on a massive scale."

Another document -- these being the latest to surface from the cache provided to journalists by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden -- is titled "Better Person Centric Analysis." It discusses 94 "entity types," such as phone numbers, e-mail addresses, and IP addresses, that are trawled by the NSA using queries like "travelsWith, hasFather, sentForumMessage, employs" to create "community of interest" profiles.

Data is also culled from other sources, such as passenger manifests, voter registration rolls, tax info, GPS location data, bank codes, insurance information, and even Facebook profiles, the Times reports.

This latest revelation about the NSA's practices comes as critics worry about the secretive agency abusing its surveillance powers and as Congress ponders curtailing the agency's programs.

The intention of the NSA social graphs, according to a 2011 agency memo quoted by the Times, is to "discover and track" connections between foreign intelligence targets and Americans. The effort has been facilitated by a policy change at the agency -- made in secret -- that's allowed analysts there to scan communications metadata and create social graphs "without," the memo says, "having to check foreigness" of every phone number, e-mail address, or other identifier that comes up.

The agency had previously required such verification to protect the privacy of American citizens, but had, the Times reports, been frustrated by how that restriction slowed or stopped its investigations of various contact chains.

Metadata includes things like location info regarding a given phone number; what calls have been placed from that number and when; and how long the calls have lasted. It doesn't include the actual content of calls (or e-mails), though some have pointed out that it can reveal a significant amount of personal information.

An agency spokeswoman told the Times that the policy change was based on a Supreme Court ruling from 1979 -- Smith v. Maryland -- which the Justice Department and others maintain means that individuals don't have an expectation of privacy in the phone numbers they call. Still others, however, say the case is not only outdated but not exactly relevant either.

NSA officials wouldn't say how many Americans have been swept up in the social graph effort or which phone and e-mail databases are being used, the Times reports. They did say, however, that the effort does not involve the database of domestic call records that was revealed by Snowden's leaked documents back in June.

An NSA spokeswoman told the Times in regard to the social graph effort: "All data queries must include a foreign intelligence justification, period" and that "all of NSA's work has a foreign intelligence purpose. Our activities are centered on counterterrorism, counterproliferation, and cybersecurity."

The idea of social graphs -- though of a markedly different type -- has also seized the imagination of Internet developers. In 2010, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced the company's "Open Graph" initiative at the F8 conference. At that time, Facebook Director of Platform Product Bret Taylor said, "now for the first time, the likes and interests of my Facebook profile link to places that are not Facebook.com...My identity is not just defined by things on Facebook, it's defined by things all over the Web."

It seems the idea of an uberweb of connections appealed to people in other fields as well.

Read the Times piece here.

Update, October 2 at 12:25 p.m. PT: NSA Director Keith Alexander has denied, as The Washington Post puts it, that the NSA "searched social networks of Americans."