New Snowden Documents Show NSA's Dishfire Program's True Extent

By Steve Anderson January 17, 2014

The Edward Snowden fallout continues, and the extent of the NSA's intelligence gathering apparatus is becoming just a little clearer. Reports from said documents - which were reportedly part of a larger investigation - suggest that the NSA was collecting nearly 200 million text messages every day, and running said messages through extensive analysis to obtain several key points of information.

The NSA program in question, going by the name of “Dishfire,” gathers what the British agency known as the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) referred to as, “pretty much everything it can.” That includes the expected communications of currently-established surveillance targets, but also well beyond that into people who seemingly have no connection to any kind of illegal activities. The GCHQ, according to reports, turned to the NSA's database for information on people in the U.K., including what were described as “untargeted and unwarranted” communications.

For the NSA, the text message database reportedly became what a 2011 presentation referred to as, “a goldmine to exploit” and yielded up all manners of information on travel plans, financial transactions, and a host of other points. What's more, the NSA was said to have a separate program known as “Prefer” into which the text messages were routed for automated analysis.

The extent of the program, as described in the reports, was especially noteworthy. Reports described a typical day in which the NSA could get over five million missed call alerts, said to be useful for “contact-chaining analysis” in which a social network could be derived by figuring out who gets called when, as well as 1.6 million border crossings (roaming alerts were the tipoff here) and over 110,000 names from electronic business cards. Additionally, over 800,000 financial transactions a day were part of the profile, in everything from text-to-text payments to just linking credit cards.

Vodafone, one of the biggest mobile providers on Earth, described its own reaction as “shocked and surprised,” saying that it was the first time it had ever heard of such things going on. Indeed, Vodafone elaborated, telling Channel 4 News: “What you’re describing sounds concerning to us because the regime that we are required to comply with is very clear and we will only disclose information to governments where we are legally compelled to do so, won’t go beyond the law and comply with due process. But what you’re describing is something that sounds as if that’s been circumvented. And for us as a business this is anathema because our whole business is founded on protecting privacy as a fundamental imperative.”

Concerning? Sure it is. The idea that a government agency, without much in the way of justification or permission beyond seemingly its own say-so, is swooping down on metadata in text messages and the like like a Black Friday shopper going after a deal is to say the least concerning. Reports suggest that the contents of the messages were left alone, but even just the metadata is disturbing enough as it is. It's the kind of thing that makes one want to call a congressman and ask just what precisely is going on in those various darkened rooms, either that or turn to the new Blackphone.

A solution to this issue is likely not forthcoming—even if the NSA said it would stop such activities, who would believe it? Until then folks, the world over may well be taking a hard look at the smartphone and wondering, just where does all this data go?

Edited by Stefania Viscusi

Contributing TechZone360 Writer

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