The NSA has built a database containing over 850 billion metadata records and a custom search engine designed specifically to help law enforcement look through the trove in an easy manner.
The new information comes from The Intercept and it’s based on yet another set of documents coming from Edward Snowden.
Basically, the new files indicate that the NSA hasn’t just been collecting troves of data on the American citizens and more, but it has also been sharing the information with other US government agencies.
The sheer size of the database indicates the extent of the collection process. The over 850 billion metadata records covers 30 different types of metadata, such as from phone calls, cell phone locations, emails, Internet chats and even faxes.
ICREACH, as the search engine is called, stands for Intelligence Community Reach. The Intercept writes that this implicates the participation of the Drug Enforcement Agency and Federal Bureau of Investigation.
The NSA built this tool to help search for specific attributes within the database. For instance, if one of these agencies looked for someone’s phone number, they’d receive a list of calls that person made and received over a certain time period. Agents could then figure out whether that particular person was an actual person of interest or not.
The documents, however, also indicate that the enormous database the NSA created doesn’t include information collected on American’s phone calls under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which can only be searched in care of terrorism investigations.
The metadata sharing efforts aren’t new by any means and go as back as 2000. The amount of records being shared with other agencies grew steadily until 2005, when a spike was recorded. Then, the next year, the number of records grew from about 150 billion to 400 billion, only to once more grow in 2007.
Considering the growing trend, it’s probably safe to say that the number has now increased considerably, especially since the ICREACH files are dated to 2006 and 2007.
Out of the 850 billion records that were mentioned in the report, about 126 billion came from what the NSA calls “2nd party SIGINT partners,” which roughly translates into the intelligence agencies from Australia, Canada, New Zealand or the UK.
NSA’s partners in these countries, namely the Australian Signals Directorate (Australia), the Communications Security Establishment (Canada), the Government Communications Security Bureau (New Zealand) and the Government Communications Headquarters (UK) also have access to data brokers specifically crafted to allow them to access the very same database.
While it’s true that metadata is information about content and not the content itself, it is still extremely important content that can give the intelligence community valuable information about the people it spies on. For instance, aside from helping them establish a person’s close group of friends and family by analyzing who they talk to most often, they can also tell a person’s working hours, general location, and even get a clue about the religion of the targeted individual.