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In the latest round of increasingly-hyperbolic leaks about what spy agencies are doing with data, reports are emerging that the NSA has been graphing connections between American individuals. Moreover, it's using stuff that people publish on their social media timelines to help the case along.

According to this item in the New York Times, the NSA extended its analysis of phone call and e-mail logs in 2010 “to examine Americans' networks of associations for foreign intelligence purposes”, something that was previously prevented because the agency was only allowed to snoop on foreigners.

While great emphasis is given to the use of software to “sophisticated graphs” of the connections between individuals, the latest “Snowden revelation”, for the leaker handed the paper some documents, seems to be more about whether the NSA persuaded its masters that it should be able to feed vast sets of phone and e-mail records into its analysis software without having to “check foreignness” of the individuals covered by a search.

More spooky but less surprising: the NSA seems to have worked out that if punters are already publishing information about themselves on social networks like Facebook or Twitter, it might be able to scoop that information into its databases (and from there into its analysis) without a warrant.

In the outside world, The Register notes that the mass collection and analysis of Twitter information is used by all sorts of people, nearly always without government oversight or warrant, to provide everything from detecting rainfall to earthquakes.

Other so-called “enrichment data” cross-matched by the NSA can include “bank codes, insurance information … passenger manifests, voter registration rolls and GPS location information … property records and unspecified tax data”, some of which may be more troubling since each of these carries different privacy expectations.

A “foreign intelligence justification” is needed for the data collection, and the NYT notes NSA spooks weren't allowed to use any data they could get their hands on:

“Analysts were warned to follow existing “minimization rules,” which prohibit the N.S.A. from sharing with other agencies names and other details of Americans whose communications are collected, unless they are necessary to understand foreign intelligence reports or there is evidence of a crime.”

The project, called Mainway, receives “vast amounts of data … daily from the agency’s fiber-optic cables”, the article states. Which demonstrates that the NSA hasn't get gotten around to implementing either RFC 1149 or its successor, RFC 2549.

While The Register would not try to minimise the legitimate concern that a vast amount of information can be derived from communications metadata alone, beyond the name of the project, it's hard to see what's new in the latest leak. ®

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