Google for spies: how the NSA made a search engine for personal metadata

Headquarters of the National Security Agency in Fort Meade, Maryland. USA image

Headquarters of the National Security Agency in Fort Meade, Maryland.

This post was originally published on Mashable.

America’s National Security Agency doesn’t just store cellphone data — it can also look up who users talked to through its own Google-like search engine.

The agency’s search engine called ICREACH can comb through around 850 billion files of phone calls, emails and more made by Americans and citizens of other nations, according to The Intercept. All those records are available to 23 agencies, such as the FBI and Drug Enforcement Agency, which have access to the search engine.

Government analysts can search for specific bits of data associated with a person, such as a phone number or an email address, and up pops a list of emails both to and from that person over a period of time. From there, analysts can figure out who a person interacts with the most, according to The Intercept.

Agents do this by picking through metadata, which doesn’t include what was said during a phone call, but does include who a person is talking with, who called whom and the time of the call. Analysts can use that data to develop patterns of behavior. If an agent wants to listen to the call someone always makes on Tuesdays at 9 pm, for example, they can plan for it.

The legality of bulk metadata storage in the US is based on an executive order from former President Reagan. But the ICREACH database stores data mostly related to non-Americans, meaning no US domestic agencies are allowed to use it to build a legal case against a US citizen.

The concern, according to The Intercept, is that officials from agencies such as the FBI or the DEA could use the database to build a legal case against an American, then hide how they got their information, though there is no evidence yet that a domestic agency has done that.

Multiple government agencies did not respond to requests for comment about the possible legal issues with ICREACH,

The search engine is reportedly the first of its kind that allows different US government agencies to share metadata amongst themselves, and it can handle between 2 billion to 5 billion new records per day and costs around $US2.5 million to $US4.5 million per year.

Former NSA Director Keith Alexander first came up with the idea in 2006, and it was up-and-running in pilot form near the end of 2007, according to The Intercept.

Henry Sapiecha

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