As recently as 2011, the National Security Agency was collecting almost 200 million text messages each day, according to a new story by The Guardian that cites documents from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. The texts were used to develop financial and location data, the newspaper says.
An image posted by The Guardian shows a presentation slide titled "Content Extraction Enhancements For Target Analytics: SMS Text Messages: A Goldmine to Exploit." Marked "Top Secret," it resembles the slides that were previously shown as part of the trove of materials Snowden gave to journalists last year.
The NSA's collection of text messages in the program, codenamed Dishfire, is arbitrary, The Guardian says, and the information is stored in a database for potential future uses. The newspaper notes that the system works globally – meaning Americans' text messages are included in the collection process. According to the presentation, texts from U.S. phone numbers are removed from the database.
After the story was published Thursday afternoon, the spy agency, which has been embarrassed by revelations about its massive data collection programs since last summer, told the BBC, "The implication that NSA's collection is arbitrary and unconstrained is false."
From The Guardian come these examples of the data extracted by the NSA on a normal day:
• "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 NSA's practices and abilities are slated to be the topic of a speech by President Obama Friday.