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.

A sign stands outside the National Security Administration (NSA) campus in Fort Meade, Md., Thursday, June 6, 2013.
National Journal
Dustin Volz
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Dustin Volz
Jan. 16, 2014, 11:04 a.m.

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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