It's not entirely surprising, but the news that the NSA routinely harvested email users' address books and contact lists still has the power to shock. The Washington Post has evidence that the agency routinely lifted users' buddy lists from chat programs and address books from web-based email services. All in all, around a quarter of a billion contact books are harvested.
A branch of the NSA called the Special Source Operations collected almost 700,000 address books last year, according to information from an internal agency PowerPoint presentation. Of these, 444,743 were from Yahoo mail users, 105,068 were from Hotmail, 82,857 from Facebook, 33,697 from Gmail, and 22,881 from unspecified other providers. On top of this, around half a million chat buddy lists are also purloined daily.
How is the data accessed? By covert agreements with foreign telecommunication firms and intelligence services from other territories, the article says. But it's not just the data of foreigners that are collected, but also those of American citizens. A spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, now with its own Tumblr account, says ordinary Americans' personal information is not of interest to them. On the contrary, their focus is on "discovering and developing intelligence about valid foreign intelligence targets like terrorists, human traffickers and drug smugglers."
Three of the firms in question—Microsoft, Facebook, and Google—all released statements saying that they did not know about, participate in, or assist with providing customer data. And Yahoo, the firm with the largest number of email accounts infiltrated for the contacts-book grab, has said that it would start SSL encryption of all of its email connections starting in January 2014. But the best bit of the story? That junkmail and spam causes a serious headache for the surveillance agencies, as it clogs their databases with useless information.
These latest revelations are part of the NSA's cache of classified data accessed and distributed to media organizations by Edward Snowden.