The National Security Agency (NSA) is not the sort of entity that enjoys being in the spotlight, but lately; it’s been having a really tough time staying out of the public eye.
Just days before the US president Barrack Obama is to speak about reforms to the NSA, it has been revealed that the latter had reportedly been scooping up millions of text messages from around the globe on daily basis. Intriguingly, the sweeping is done in an untargeted manner, which means that even those people who aren’t suspected of any wrong-doing are being spied upon by the security agency.
Exploring the goldmine through Dishfire and Prefer
As per a new report from The Guardian and the UK’s Channel 4 News, who collectively investigated the top-secret documents leaked by the NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, the US secret agency had been running a program codenamed Dishfire, which focuses on collecting and storage of untargeted text messages from around the world. During April 2011, the agency had collected 194 million text messages per day. The report further revealed that during an internal presentation in June 2011, the NSA had termed text messages as a goldmine to exploit, thus highlighting its value for the agency.
The NSA had been running another program simultaneously by the name of Prefer, which involved analyzing the collected text messages. By analyzing these messages, the agency was able to extract information such as location, contact books and contact cards, missed call alerts, border-crossing alerts, details of financial transactions, images, and much more. The data was more than enough to give the NSA a pretty good idea of someone’s habits and social network among other things.
The American citizens may feel a bit relieved to learn that the Dishfire program eventually removes records of communications from US numbers. However, the spied text messages gathered from other parts of the world remain in their databases for future screening. On the other hand, the NSA’s British counterpart GCHQ, which also has an access to the Dishfire database, doesn’t do away with the communications from UK numbers. They law prohibits it from seeing the content of the text messages without a warrant, which is why the focus is set on their meta-data.
The NSA claims to be focused on legitimate targets
The NSA has rebuked the report by The Guardian and the Channel 4 News that it has carrying out untargeted gathering of text messages from around the world. On the contrary, it claimed that its activities are focused on only valid foreign intelligence targets in order to meet current intelligence requirements. On its handling of the US persons’ records, the NSA said that the privacy of citizens has been fully respected and protected in the Dishfire program.
Pressure building on the US government
The US government has been under immense pressure lately to introduce reforms to its mass surveillance program. The fight for privacy has spread from the general public to tech industries and other entities as well, thus making it even harder for the US government to avoid addressing it. With President Obama set to talk about NSA reforms by the end of this week, the timing of The Guardian and Channel 4 News’ report on untargeted collection of text messages could not have been worse.
It is not yet clear whether the Dishfire and Prefer program are ongoing and to what extent. Furthermore, there is also no clear report on which other agency besides the GCHQ has an access to the Dishfire database. The US government and the NSA itself needs to address these queries and make their commitment to the privacy rights of people known if they want to put the lid on the hue-and-cry of the public, world leaders, and the tech companies once and for all.