The NSA Is Also Scooping Up Millions of E-mail Address Books

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Protesters hold Snowden masks in Brazil.Photo: REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

Government surveillance is one of several topics that Congress was expected to address in the fall, but which appear likely to fall of the agenda since lawmakers couldn't even manage to keep the government functioning. Several members of Congress said last week that they still intend to introduce legislation that would rein in the NSA. If they ever get around to it, newly released details on the agency's spy program suggest Edward Snowden has plenty of information to keep the public debate going. The Washington Post reports that while it's sucking up phone metadata and potentially sifting through 75 percent of Internet traffic, the NSA is also "harvesting hundreds of millions of contact lists from personal e-mail and instant messaging accounts around the world, many of them belonging to Americans."

Many of the details will come as no surprise to those who have been following Snowden's leaks. Address books and "buddy lists" from many different e-mail and instant messaging services are collected as they pass through global data hubs, with help from foreign intelligence services and telecommunications companies. The program isn't illegal since none of the access points are located in the U.S., but plenty of Americans' data is inadvertently scooped up. According to two senior U.S. intelligence officials, the NSA might have the contact information for millions or tens of millions of Americans.

Regardless of the users' nationality, the NSA is collecting an incredible amount of data. Per the Post:

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. Those figures, described as a typical daily intake in the document, correspond to a rate of more than 250 million a year.

In response to the report, the NSA pointed out once again that it could not care less about our boring online activities. A spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said the NSA "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." So there's absolutely no reason to worry about the program, unless some classmate you instant messaged years ago about homework happens to have a network of shady contacts overseas.