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Text messages are ‘a goldmine to exploit’ for the NSA

Updated Dec 19th, 2018 8:45PM EST
NSA SMS Text Messages Collection

The National Security Agency (NSA) has the ability of collecting SMS text messages and related data in bulk from around the world, a new The Guardian report shows, based on documentation obtained from NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. According to an internal NSA presentation from April 2011, the company was able to gather almost 200 million text messages a day from across the world that month. In addition to actual SMS messages, the Dishfire program collected “pretty much everything it can,” according to documents from British spy agency GCHQ.

A presentation subtitled “SMS Text Messages: A Goldmine to Exploit,” describes the scope of Dishfire and reveals a “Prefer” program that can conduct an automated analysis of the obtained communications in search for relevant data. In addition to the almost 200 million text messages collected per day, the NSA was able to collect each day more than 5 million missed-call alerts that can be used to map someone’s social network and contact habits, over 1.6 million border crossing from roaming alerts, over 110,000 names from electronic business cards including images, over 800,000 financial transactions including text-to-text payments and credit cards, over 76,000 geolocation data including route requests and meetings set ups, and travel data including cancellations and airplane delays.

The presentation reveals that “such gems are not in current metadata stores and would enhance current analytics.” The NSA has apparently collected only data from international users, discarding data related to U.S. citizens.

“As we have previously stated, the implication that NSA’s collection is arbitrary and unconstrained is false,” a spokeswoman commenting on the matter said. “NSA’s activities are focused and specifically deployed against – and only against – valid foreign intelligence targets in response to intelligence requirements.”

GCHQ has been able to use the NSA’s Dishfire database, although the agency says it didn’t access the actual SMS content for people living in the U.K. and instead it only accessed “events” related to UK numbers such as “who is contacting who, and when.”

Vodafone, one of the largest carriers in Europe which also operates in the region was “shocked” to find out the scope of the NSA’s and GCHQ’s spying powers. The company will be challenging the U.K. government over this matter. “From our perspective, the law is there to protect our customers and it doesn’t sound as if that is what is necessarily happening,” Vodafone’s privacy officer and head of legal for privacy, security and content standards told Channel 4 News.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., President Barack Obama is expected to announced NSA reforms on Friday.

Slides from the “SMS Text Messages: A Goldmine to Exploit” follow below, as provided by The Guardian.

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he brings his entertainment expertise to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises.

Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.