NSA offers details on 'LOVEINT' (that's spying on lovers, exes)

One NSA worker did it "out of curiosity," another for "practice." Agency's letter in response to query from US senator gives glimpse of romance-related -- and other -- misuses of surveillance system.

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.
  • Ed was a member of the CNET crew that won a National Magazine Award from the American Society of Magazine Editors for general excellence online. He's also edited pieces that've nabbed prizes from the Society of Professional Journalists and others.
Edward Moyer
4 min read

Why bother with boyfriend-vetting sites like ReportYourEx.com when you've got the ginormous spying resources of the NSA at your fingertips?

That seems to have been the thinking of at least one intelligence worker with the US National Security Agency, who, an NSA letter suggests, regularly tapped the agency's now-infamous phone-data collection program to screen people she met at cocktail parties and the like.

The overseas staffer "tasked the telephone number of her foreign-national boyfriend and other foreign nationals and...reviewed the resultant collection," the letter reads, adding later: "The subject asserted that it was her practice to enter foreign national phone numbers she obtained in social settings into the [NSA] system to ensure that she was not talking to 'shady characters.'"

These intriguing, fill-in-the-rest-of-the-narrative-as-you-see-fit details come in a just-published letter from NSA Inspector General George Ellard to Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), ranking member in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

In August, Grassley asked Ellard to provide details on instances documented by the inspector general's office in which NSA personnel "intentionally and willfully abused their surveillance authorities." The request followed media reports of workers with access to NSA surveillance setups spying on their lovers. The practice reportedly has its own spycraft nickname: "LOVEINT," a play on acronyms like SIGINT (for the sort of signals, or communications, intelligence that's handled by the NSA) and HUMINT (for the human intelligence that's carried out by agencies like the CIA).

Grassley's request also followed various other revelations of NSA missteps that have surfaced since June, when former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden leaked a trove of documents that reveal the extent of the shadowy agency's surveillance systems.

Ellard's response to Grassley opens by saying that "Since 1 January 2003, there have been 12 substantiated instances of intentional misuse of the signals intelligence (SIGINT) authorities" of the NSA. (An internal NSA audit leaked by Snowden showed many other incidents of various types -- an average of seven per day -- though these were, the agency says, mainly inadvertent.) From there, the Ellard letter gives brief rundowns of those dozen cases.

Of the 12 cases, 8 involved snooping on current or past lovers or spouses. One analyst said he queried the number of his foreign-national girlfriend "out of curiosity." Another did the same, he said, because he wanted to see if his main squeeze was "involved with any [local] government officials or other activities that might get [him] in trouble." Another discovered a foreign phone number on her husband's cell phone and queried it to see if he had cheated. "The tasking," the letter says, "resulted in voice collection of her husband." Another queried six e-mail addresses that belonged to his ex, later testifying, as the letter paraphrases it, that "he wanted to practice on the system and had decided to use his former girlfriend's" addresses to do so.

In 5 of the 12 cases, the employee resigned before being disciplined. In 1 instance, the employee retired before being disciplined, and in another the worker retired before the investigation had been finalized. Half the cases were referred to the US Department of Justice (1 of those was declined by the DOJ), and in 2 other instances, records were insufficient to determine if the case had been passed on to the Justice Department. None of the workers were prosecuted.

This is how things played out for the various rule-breakers who were disciplined:

  • One "received a one-year letter of reprimand (prohibiting promotions, awards, and within-grade increases) and a 10 day suspension without pay. The subject's pending permanent change-of-station assignment was cancelled, and his provision recommendation was withdrawn."
  • One "received a reduction in grade, 45 days restriction, 45 days extra duty, and half pay for two months. It was recommended that the subject not be given a security clearance."
  • One "received a reduction in rank, 45 days extra duty, and half pay for two months. The member's access to classified information was revoked."
  • One's "database access and access to classified information were suspended."
  • One "received a written reprimand."

The NSA's phone-call tracking system sucks up metadata -- what numbers were called from what number, how long the calls lasted, and so on. The NSA has made a point of specifying that it does not routinely listen in on Americans' phone calls. Still, some have pointed out that metadata can potentially tell you quite a lot.

Here's Ellard's letter in full, should you want to dream up further details and construct a cloak-and-dagger melodrama or two (or simply reflect on the powerful pull of jealousy, and curiosity):

NSA letter on LOVEINT and intentional misuse of NSA authority