If a new report in The Washington Post is accurate, the National Security Agency (NSA) has siphoned up millions of online address books and contact lists.
According to the newspaper, those books and lists belong to Americans in addition to foreign nationals; the NSA largely managed to accomplish this feat by tapping into the networks that shuttle data all over the world, sidestepping many of IT companies that built and host these services.
The Post drew its information from top-secret documents provided by government whistleblower Edward Snowden, who spent the summer feeding information about the NSA to a variety of news outlets. Those documents hint at the massive size of the NSA’s operation; on a single day in 2012, for example, the agency collected 444,743 email address books from Yahoo and 22,697 from Gmail, along with tens of thousands of contact lists from other popular Web services.
“The collection depends on secret arrangements with foreign telecommunications companies or allied intelligence services in control of facilities that direct traffic along the Internet’s main data routes,” the article added.
When viewed in light of Snowden’s earlier revelations, the worldwide vacuuming of address books is hardly surprising. In September, Germany’s Spiegel Online suggested that the NSA could access data from pretty much every smartphone on the market; the sourcing behind that article most likely came from Snowden. In July, The Guardian asserted that Microsoft was collaborating tightly with the NSA. And in June, both The Guardian and The Washington Post—again, working from documents that Snowden spirited out of the NSA when he worked as a contractor there—revealed the existence of two massive NSA projects for monitoring Americans, including PRISM, which allegedly siphons personal information from the databases of nine major technology companies (most of those firms, which include Google and Facebook, strenuously deny any NSA involvement).
The public has greeted each new revelation with weakening outrage; whereas the initial news reports in June kicked off a firestorm of controversy and discussion (aggravated by the drama of Snowden seeking asylum in pretty much any country that would have him), the unveiling of the NSA’s Great Contact-List Caper has ranked below the government shutdown, negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, and invites for Apple’s upcoming iPad event on aggregators such as Google News, which as a reliable way to measure public attention.
The NSA insists that it has measures in place that ensure it follows the law with regard to capturing (and disregarding) information from non-terrorists, but critics complain that these regulations lack oversight. There’s the very real possibility that Americans, despite the assurances of government officials, are being monitored in a way that potentially violates their privacy. Surely that’s an issue that concerns a great many individuals; and yet, as time goes by, it seems as if people are choosing to focus on other things. Call it surveillance fatigue.