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Obama Wants to End NSA Debate, but the Leaks Just Keep Coming Obama Wants to End NSA Debate, but the Leaks Just Keep Coming

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Obama Wants to End NSA Debate, but the Leaks Just Keep Coming

New revelations show the agency is collecting 200 million text messages a day from cell-phone users around the world.

U.S. phones are believed to be removed or "minimized" from the text-messaging database.

photo of Dustin Volz
January 16, 2014

Good luck with your speech on government surveillance tomorrow, President Obama. New revelations about the National Security Agency published Thursday by The Guardian expose yet another secret agency program, one that collects almost 200 million text messages every day from cell phones around the world.

The new disclosure, again fed by leaked documents provided by Edward Snowden, arrives less than 24 hours before Obama will give an address calling for reforms to the NSA. The president is widely expected to embrace some—but not all—of the reforms called for last month by his hand-picked surveillance review board, but the timing of this new report strongly indicates we're far from hearing the last from the massive trove of Snowden files.

The British paper published classified NSA slides from a 2011 presentation detailing a program known as "Dishfire," which collected 194 million text messages per day in April of that year. Perhaps even more startling, a companion program called "Prefer" ran "automated analysis on the untargeted communications."

 

U.S. phone numbers, according to the documents, were removed from the database.

According to The Guardian's analysis, the programs collect:

  • 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.

The international surveillance of text messages calls to mind earlier disclosures revealing that the NSA has tapped phone lines of some heads of state around the world, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The latest leak may prompt Obama to engage in another round of assurances with world leaders suspicious of surveillance. 

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