The National Security Agency is harvesting hundreds of millions of contact lists from personal e-mail and instant messaging accounts around the world, many of them belonging to Americans, according to senior intelligence officials and top-secret documents provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
The collection program, which has not been disclosed before, intercepts e-mail address books and “buddy lists” from instant messaging services as they move across global data links. Online services often transmit those contacts when a user logs on, composes a message, or synchronizes a computer or mobile device with information stored on remote servers.
Rather than targeting individual users, the NSA is gathering contact lists in large numbers that amount to a sizable fraction of the world’s e-mail and instant messaging accounts. Analysis of that data enables the agency to search for hidden connections and to map relationships within a much smaller universe of foreign intelligence targets.
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. Inbox listings of e-mail accounts stored in the “cloud” sometimes contain content, such as the first few lines of a message.
Taken together, the data would enable the NSA, if permitted, to draw detailed maps of a person’s life, as told by personal, professional, political and religious connections. The picture can also be misleading, creating false “associations” with ex-spouses or people with whom an account holder has had no contact in many years.
In practice, data from Americans is collected in large volumes — in part because they live and work overseas, but also because data crosses international boundaries even when its American owners stay at home. Large technology companies, including Google and Facebook, maintain data centers around the world to balance loads on their servers and work around outages.But:
Spam has proven to be a significant problem for the NSA — clogging databases with information that holds no foreign intelligence value. The majority of all e-mails, one NSA document says, “are SPAM from ‘fake’ addresses and never ‘delivered’ to targets.”
In fall 2011, according to an NSA presentation, the Yahoo account of an Iranian target was “hacked by an unknown actor,” who used it to send spam. The Iranian had “a number of Yahoo groups in his/her contact list, some with many hundreds or thousands of members.”
The cascading effects of repeated spam messages, compounded by the automatic addition of the Iranian’s contacts to other people’s address books, led to a massive spike in the volume of traffic collected by the Australian intelligence service on the NSA’s behalf.
After nine days of data-bombing, the Iranian’s contact book and contact books for several people within it were “emergency detasked.”Second from Cyclone Phailin:
A catastrophe seemed inevitable as monstrous cyclone Phailin lumbered towards the northeast coast of India. Less than 15 years before, a similar storm, named Odisha, devastated a nearby part of the country, leading to over 10,000 casualties.
It will be days if not weeks before Phailin’s full toll on life and property is known, but from early accounts, there are no signs of a disaster on the scale of 1999 Odisha cyclone. CNN reports a comparatively low 21 deaths from Phailin.
There are several factors which, together, help explain why disastrous consequences were avoided from Phailin.
5) The storm’s intensity may have been overestimated (by some sources, including some we cited): While the Joint Typhoon Warning Center and other U.S. forecasters estimated the storm’s peak intensity reached category 5 levels, the Indian Meteorological Department did not. While the Indian Meteorological Department predicted a serious storm (and its predictions motivated the massive preparation efforts), its forecasts were not as dire as some others. Assessing the intensity of a tropical cyclone in the Indian Ocean (and Bay on Bengal) is different from other ocean basins, and the regional expertise of the Indian Meteorological Department may have proven superior.
“They have been issuing warnings, and we have been contradicting them,” said L.S. Rathore, director-general of the Indian Meteorological Department. “That is all that I want to say.”
“As a scientist, we have our own opinion and we stuck to that. We told them that is what is required as a national weather service — to keep people informed with the reality without being influenced by over-warning,” Rathore added, according to the Associated Press.