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By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)

10/15/2013 (6 months ago)

Catholic Online (

NSA is gathering address books from email and IM.

A report published by the Washington Post now claims the NSA is collecting your contact lists from email and instant messaging programs. The report also suggests the NSA is having a hard time with the same bane of the inbox that plagues ordinary users -spam.

Spam is one thing both terrorists and the NSA probably hate as much as you do.

Spam is one thing both terrorists and the NSA probably hate as much as you do.

Article Highlights

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)

Catholic Online (

10/15/2013 (6 months ago)

Published in Politics & Policy

Keywords: NSA, emails, search, freedom, spam, search, identify, terrorism

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - According to the Washington Post, the NSA is collecting hundreds of millions of contact lists harvested from email and instant messages from around the world. Although the collection takes place overseas, thus making it legal, it also nets the lists of most Americans since their personal information is often transmitted internationally.

The revelation is just the latest in a series based on classified documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

According to the report, the NSA is harvesting your contact lists to look for suspicious connections.

Your connections provide a lot of information and serve as a unique identifier that is every bit as unique as a fingerprint or your DNA. This digital DNA, so to speak, can identify you even if you do not use your real name on your profile.

Access to this information can allow the NSA to locate and track suspected terrorists who may be trying to elude surveillance by setting up fake accounts. Invariably, they will form connections with the same pattern of individuals because that is who they interact with. These unique patterns can give away a person's identity.

The NSA says the information is used for legitimate purposes only. A spokesman for the NSA told the WP, "the agency 'is focused on discovering and developing intelligence about valid foreign intelligence targets like terrorists, human traffickers and drug smugglers. We are not interested in personal information about ordinary Americans.'"

This is probably quite true, however history teaches that most powers are eventually abused. Last month it became known that the NSA was sharing information with other federal agencies, and that individuals working within the NSA had used their power to spy on love interests.

The agents who oversee and work within the NSA are human, and are subject to human failings. Just as some members of the clergy may commit acts of immorality and deceit, so too can agents of the government. The difference of course, is the power that each office wields. The NSA has the power to access everything about you that you hold private and can use that information to construct a profile that is very accurate and very revealing.

It's a handy tool when hunting terrorists, but it's terrifying to think of it used against citizens for any reason.

Worse, the NSA answers chiefly to itself and to a secret court whose proceedings are not public nor transparent, and finally to the president. Should we trust our presidents and secret courts to always behave as ethical actors?

A PowerPoint slide within the latest disclosure shows that the NSA takes in about 250 million contact lists from emails and instant messages every year.

Another problem for the agency is common to all internet users -spam. A released NSA document revealed that spam comprises the majority of the email intercepted by the NSA and that it sometimes threatens to overwhelm databases. On at least one occasion, the documents say, an Iranian target had his email hacked by a spammer who sent mo much spam that it threatened to clog the databases and shut down the operation.  The agency had to stop monitoring their target because of it.

Documents also show the NSA is aware their dragnet approach to data collection isn't very efficient. The Washington Post explained, "In a briefing from the NSA's Large Access Exploitation working group, that example [referring to the Iranian spam case] was used to illustrate the need to narrow the criteria for data interception. It called for a "shifting collection philosophy": "Memorialize what you need" vs. "Order one of everything off the menu and eat what you want."

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