The National Security Agency is Sweeping Up Your E-Mail Address Books

The latest documents from Edward Snowden reveal that the NSA is harvesting hundreds of millions of e-mail and instant messaging contacts.

Photo Credit: U.S. Government/Wikimedia Commons

The National Security Agency (NSA) isn’t limiting itself to the bulk collection of Americans’ phone metadata. The latest information from documents leaked by Edward Snowden reveal that the secretive intelligence agency is collecting and holding hundreds of millions of e-mail and instant messaging contacts, the Washington Post reports.

The NSA is doing this with no oversight, and no approval from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. Foreign intelligence collection is done under executive authority, meaning that the Congressional intelligence committees know little about the program. Data from Americans’ e-mail address books are being swept up in the dragnet, but the federal surveillance court does not need to approve the collection because the access points are all over the world, instead of U.S.-based. Data from instant messaging “buddy lists” is also being swept up.

The number of e-mail address books and instant messaging contacts being harvested is staggering. “During a single day last year, the NSA’s Special Source Operations branch collected 444,743 e-mail address books from Yahoo, 105,068 from Hotmail, 82,857 from Facebook, 33,697 from Gmail and 22,881 from unspecified other providers, according to an internal NSA PowerPoint presentation,” the Post’s Barton Gellman and Ashkan Soltani report. “Those figures, described as a typical daily intake in the document, correspond to a rate of more than 250 million a year. The agency is able to do so because of arrangements with foreign telecommunications companies and allied intelligence agencies.

This NSA program can reveal a lot about Americans. Address books can include telephone numbers, street addresses and family and business information. And the program can also collect the first few lines of the content of e-mails in inboxes. The Post reports that, “the data would enable the NSA, if permitted, to draw detailed maps of a person’s life, as told by personal, professional, political and religious connections.” But that information could also be misleading by “creating false ‘associations’ with ex-spouses or people with whom an account holder has had no contact in many years.”

NSA officials have defended the program. The intelligence 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,” a spokesman told the Post.

But the American Civil Liberties Union is blasting the program. “This revelation further confirms that the NSA has relied on the pretense of 'foreign intelligence gathering' to sweep up an extraordinary amount of information about everyday Americans,” staff attorney at the ACLU Alex Abdo told CBS.The NSA's indiscriminate collection of information about innocent people can't be justified on security grounds, and it presents a serious threat to civil liberties.”


Alex Kane is former World editor at AlterNet. His work has appeared in Mondoweiss, Salon, VICE, the Los Angeles Review of Books and more. Follow him on Twitter @alexbkane.