Australian authorities are gathering more than 300,000 contact lists a day from personal email and instant messaging accounts, on behalf of the US National Security Agency, a new report has claimed.
The previously undisclosed collection program intercepts email address books and instant messaging "buddy lists" as they move across the global data links. Online services often transmit those contacts when a user logs on, composes a message or synchronises a computer or mobile device with information stored on remote servers.
Rather than targeting individual users, the NSA is gathering contact lists in large numbers that amount to a sizable fraction of the world's email and instant messaging accounts. Analysis of that data enables the agency to search for hidden connections and map relationships within a much smaller universe of foreign intelligence targets.
According to the Washington Post, on a single day last year, the NSA's Special Source Operations branch collected 444,743 email address books from Yahoo, 105,068 from Hotmail, 82,857 from Facebook, 33,697 from Gmail and 22,881 from unspecified other providers. The figures are contained in an internal top secret NSA PowerPoint presentation provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. The "typical daily intake" corresponds to a rate of more than 250 million address books per year.
The newspaper claims Australia's NSA counterpart — the Defence Signals Directorate (now the Australian Signals Directorate) — collected 311,113 address books as part of the program on a single day, naming it as the designated "DS" code in the leaked file.