The U.S. National Security Agency may be storing your text messages.
The data-hungry intelligence agency collects and stores nearly 200 million text messages each day in an “untargeted” global sweep, report the Guardian and the U.K’s Channel 4 News, citing material provided by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. The news stems from an internal NSA presentation dated June 2011, which calls SMS text messages “a goldmine to exploit.”
The SMS collection program is codenamed “Dishfire.” Rather than collecting data on existing surveillance targets, the NSA slurps up “pretty much anything it can,” according to one of the leaked documents.
The NSA uses a program called “Prefer” to perform automated analysis on the SMS metadata. The NSA’s vast text message database has enabled it to extract information on financial transactions, location, contact networks, and more. On an average day, the NSA can reportedly extract details on 1.6 million border crossings daily from network roaming alerts, for example.
The documents suggest that communications from American phone numbers are eventually removed from the database, but those from abroad are not.
That makes it a useful resource for U.K. spy agency GCHQ, which reportedly has full access to the NSA database. GCHQ is said to run queries examining the metadata of people in the U.K.
“You can… run queries prior to targeting a number, as the content may give you an idea of how useful the number will be,” reads a leaked document.
Because the NSA gathers and stores the text data, GCHQ doesn’t need to submit a request to the U.K. government to parse through the information. Access to foreign intelligence — even if it’s data on U.K. citizens — is not covered under the country’s Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act.
In a statement to the Guardian, an NSA spokeswoman characterized the Dishfire program as lawful, challenging assertions that the data collection was arbitrary and unconstrained.
These latest revelations come a day before U.S. President Barack Obama is expected to suggest major changes to the NSA’s surveillance programs.