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200 million text messages daily: The NSA's treasure trove of SMS data

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The NSA doesn't stop at collecting emails. The latest revelation from the treasure trove of documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, and published by The Guardian on Thursday, is that the NSA has collected nearly 200 million text messages a day from across the world.

As with its massive spying programs in other areas, which seem aimed to vacuum up as much data as possible, rather than specifying set surveillance targets, this NSA program, codenamed Dishfire, collects “pretty much everything it can”, according to documents from the U.K. spy agency, GCHQ. Through the use of its huge text message database, the NSA has extracted information on contacts, financial transactions, and even people’s travel plans.

As with other NSA spying programs, much of the information gleaned includes the data of individuals who are under no suspicion any illegal activity.

The Guardian worked with the U.K.'s Channel 4 News in its investigation of the Dishfire program.

Significantly, the leaked documents suggest that communications from U.S. phone numbers, were “minimized” (removed) from the database, but those of other countries, including the U.K., were retained.

The investigation said that, on a daily basis, the NSA was able to grab the following:

  • More than 5 million missed-call alerts, for use in contact-chaining analysis (working out someone’s social network from who they contact and when)
  • Details of 1.6 million border crossings a day, from network roaming alerts
  • More than 110,000 names, from electronic business cards, which also included the ability to extract and save images.
  • Over 800,000 financial transactions, either through text-to-text payments or linking credit cards to phone users
  • Geolocation data from more than 76,000 text messages a day, including from “requests by people for route info” and “setting up meetings." Other travel information was obtained from itinerary texts sent by travel companies, even including cancellations and delays to travel plans.

In a statement to The Guardian, an NSA spokeswoman said that the Dishfire program uses lawfully collected SMS data.

As we have previously stated, the implication that NSA's collection is arbitrary and unconstrained is false. NSA's activities are focused and specifically deployed against -- and only against -- valid foreign intelligence targets in response to intelligence requirements.

Meanwhile, the GCHQ would not respond to specific questions about Dishfire, but it did say that its work is "carried out in accordance with a strict legal and policy framework which ensures that our activities are authorised, necessary and proportionate."

U.S. President Barack Obama is expected to announce -- on Friday -- changes to the NSA spying programs based on recommendations from an NSA advisory panel. These recommendations were made in mid-December of last year.

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