NSA Collecting E-Mail Address Books

In news that shouldn’t be surprising to anybody, new information has come out that says the NSA has been monitoring and collecting e-mail address books in addition to telephone records and other Internet information from American citizens.  The Washington Post claims that this additional program was able to collect information from “a sizable fraction of the world’s e-mail and instant messaging accounts.”  The goal of this program is similar to that of the NSA’s other data collection programs, in that it is intended to find connections among foreign terrorist suspects.  The program allegedly led to the collection of over 250 million address books over the past year.

The difference between this program and the well-documented PRISM program is that address book monitoring took place overseas through arrangements with foreign service providers and only incidentally overlapped with American citizens.  The NSA also claims that this method is far more effective than collecting telephone data, which is logical since the NSA could presumably then collect written communications based on e-mail addresses.  The address books are also more helpful to the NSA because they already include telephone numbers of contacts, as well as names and street addresses.

I’ve been on record as defending the NSA’s methods before.  I’ve often pointed out that the NSA does not appear to actually access phone records unless they have probable cause.  I still don’t necessarily see the harm in the government having our phone numbers if they don’t plan to burrow into our personal lives (although I know that it’s quite an assumption to say that they won’t).  I also fail to see the problem with the NSA collecting addresses since, chances are, the government is already in possession of those records.  I recognize that I’m probably in the minority with my opinions on this issue but I won’t have a problem with the NSA’s programs until somebody can point me to a specific instance  where the government has actually abused this information it has collected.

My problem with the NSA, which grows every time one of these programs is brought to light, is more of a logistical one.  The NSA clearly has the capacity to store this information, but does it really have the manpower and technology to achieve its goals?  There is sure to be some useful data buried in the mountains of phone and Internet records the Agency collects but some of that crucial information is bound to be lost in the shuffle.  It would seemingly be much more efficient for the NSA to be more discriminatory in its collection methods.  Sure, it might take more time to identify the right people to surveil, but there’s a good chance that the NSA is losing that time anyways by having to sift through millions of useless records searching for the right ones.  I’m clearly not an expert in this field, and I may be oversimplifying the issue, but it seems to me like there is a better way to collect relevant records while minimizing the PR nightmare the NSA is currently experiencing.  We might just find out if that’s true if these stories continue to come out.

Chris Whitten, Research Fellow
Center fo Policy and Research

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