The NSA hoards our online contact lists

According to leaked documents, the NSA daily collects contacts from an estimated 500,000 contact lists

Topics: Edward Snowden, contact lists, buddy lists, Yahoo, Surveillance, NSA, National Security Agency, Spying, dragnet, The Washington Post, gmail, Facebook, Hotmail, , ,

In one of the more chilling revelations to emerge of late about the NSA’s data hoarding complex, the Washington Post reported Tuesday that the spy agency collects millions of contact lists — including those of U.S. citizens — linked to both email addresses and instant messaging accounts.

The news highlights once again how NSA dragnets specifically contour to collect communications data to provide a map of connections and associations around the world. The Post, which gleaned information on the top secret spy program through an NSA presentation leaked by whistle-blower Edward Snowden, noted the particularly invasive nature of the contact list collection practices:

Contact lists stored online provide the NSA with far richer sources of data than call records alone. Address books commonly include not only names and e-mail addresses, but also telephone numbers, street addresses, and business and family information.

… During a single day last year, the NSA’s Special Source Operations branch collected 444,743 e-mail address books from Yahoo, 105,068 from Hotmail, 82,857 from Facebook, 33,697 from Gmail and 22,881 from unspecified other providers, according to an internal NSA PowerPoint presentation. Those figures, described as a typical daily intake in the document, correspond to a rate of more than 250 million a year.

Each day, the presentation said, the NSA collects contacts from an estimated 500,000 buddy lists on live-chat services as well as from the inbox displays of Web-based e-mail accounts.

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Like other dragnet NSA programs, including PRISM, the contact list collection relies on the hoarding of mass amounts of data, which is then later sifted, rather than targeting specific individuals’ online activity — it’s this brand of blanket spying, from which no one is exempt, on which our surveillance state is built. Notably, unlike PRISM, the mass collection of contact lists has not been legitimated under Patriot Act provisions; rather, the data centers are based outside of U.S. territory in an explicit evasion of (albeit) veil-thin privacy protections within these borders. “In this program, the NSA is obliged to make that case only to itself or others in the executive branch. With few exceptions, intelligence operations overseas fall solely within the president’s legal purview,” the Post noted.

Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email

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