How the NSA collects millions of phone texts a day


On Thursday, another National Security Agency document from the trove obtained by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden was published by The Guardian. The new slides from the NSA’s top-secret WebWorld intranet are from a presentation called “Content Extraction Enhancements for Target Analytics: SMS Text Messages: A Goldmine to Exploit.” Aside from the overuse of colons, the slides include details of a program that collects massive amounts of data from the world’s cellular phone networks.

The slides were published just after security expert Bruce Schneier met with a group of members of Congress to discuss what was revealed by the Snowden documents about the NSA. The meeting, ironically, could not be held in a secure facility to go over information in documents not yet published—because Schneier doesn’t have clearance.

According to the June 2011 slides, the NSA collects 194 million messages a day—not just SMS messages, but system-generated messages as well: geolocation data, synchronizing address book data (vCards), missed call messages, call roaming data, and other data as well. This trove is collected in Dishfire, an SMS repository system that is much like the XKeyscore Internet monitoring system. Like XKeyscore, Dishfire captures large volumes of “untargeted” data—messages that aren’t associated with individuals identified for surveillance—based on some basic filtering out to “minimize” data such as messages from US numbers.

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