Facebook doesn't have anything on the National Security Agency. In the fight for social network supremacy, no one has a more detailed, built out social network than the NSA. You'll never know if you're participating in their social network — there's no sign up page, or two step authentication — and if you are, you may not even know who you've been linked to.
The New York Times' James Risen and Laura Poitras report the NSA has a program that builds on phone and email metadata, with help from "bank codes, insurance information, Facebook profiles, passenger manifests, voter registration rolls and GPS location information, as well as property records and unspecified tax data," to track international and domestic people of interest. It is, at its essence, a secret social network that reveals its subjects' deepest, darkest secrets. The program makes "contact chains" from a target's email and phone records. Those contact chains expand larger and larger, like ripples in a pond, until a complete picture of a person's network of communications is visible. The Atlantic Wire has joked about NSA programs resembling Facebook before, but this is even worse.
You're worried about unflattering tagged pictures?
"Phone and e-mail logs, for example, allow analysts to identify people’s friends and associates, detect where they were at a certain time, acquire clues to religious or political affiliations, and pick up sensitive information like regular calls to a psychiatrist’s office, late-night messages to an extramarital partner or exchanges with a fellow plotter," Risen and Poitras explain.
This social networking system is largely distinct from the other spying programs revealed by reporters and NSA leaker Edward Snowden so far. (Though he did contribute documents for this report, natch.) It mostly tracks foreign nationals suspected to be involved in criminal activity, but some Americans get caught up in the networks if they fall within a suspect's social connections. An NSA spokeswoman explained how an American can be caught up in the chaining:
The legal underpinning of the policy change, she said, was a 1979 Supreme Court ruling that Americans could have no expectation of privacy about what numbers they had called. Based on that ruling, the Justice Department and the Pentagon decided that it was permissible to create contact chains using Americans’ “metadata,” which includes the timing, location and other details of calls and e-mails, but not their content. The agency is not required to seek warrants for the analyses from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
If you communicate regularly with someone from another country (though Canada and Mexico are exempt, remember) who works in politics, expect that you are probably included in the NSA's social network. If you communicate with an international criminal, of course you're included:
In the 2011 memo explaining the shift, N.S.A. analysts were told that they could trace the contacts of Americans as long as they cited a foreign intelligence justification. That could include anything from ties to terrorism, weapons proliferation, international drug smuggling or espionage to conversations with a foreign diplomat or a political figure.
This is a substantial reveal of another government spying effort that may or may not draw attention from Congress and the Senate once they avert another spending crisis. (Which will happen, eventually.) But this scoop is, in its own way, a rebellion against the administration. The two reporters who reported this story have complicated relationships with the organizations they expose here. The Justice Department is forcing Risen to testify against a source who allegedly leaked him confidential information. He faces jail time if he refuses to talk. Poitras has been helping Glenn Greenwald since the beginning of the NSA scandal and she has an interesting, combative history with law enforcement; the two don't get along very well.
(Photo: Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testifying on Capitol Hill.)
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.