Nearly 200 million text messages a day are being collected from people around the globe by the National Security Agency as part of a secret program called "Dishfire." That's according to a new report from The Guardian and the UK's Channel 4 News service, aided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. As part of the program, so-called "untargeted" texts are collected then analyzed by a separate service called "Prefer," which is capable of pulling together detailed reports for the agency. News of the program comes from an internal NSA presentation dated June 2011, which refers to SMS text messages as "a goldmine to exploit."
"A goldmine to exploit"
Some of the information captured by the program includes names, phone numbers, and images, though other seemingly basic alerts offer a closer look at someone's habits. Three such examples are texts from banks and other services about financial transactions, detailed meeting information from calendar invites, as well as messages from wireless phone carriers that are sent when borders are crossed. The program also kept track of missed calls, passwords, and information about SIM cards.
One key factor of Dishfire is how the data is treated for texts from within the US versus abroad. While American records are eventually removed, the presentation about Dishfire suggests data from other countries is stored for far longer. And while the scale of the database is unclear from the documents, The Guardian notes that the NSA told analysts to limit searches to under 1,800 phone numbers.
An NSA spokesperson reiterated to The Guardian that "the implication that NSA's collection is arbitrary and unconstrained is false," adding that the agency's activities "are focused and specifically deployed against — and only against — valid foreign intelligence targets in response to intelligence requirements." On Dishfire specifically, the spokesperson said "privacy protections for US persons exist across the entire process concerning the use, handling, retention, and dissemination of SMS data in Dishfire."
New details on the program come just a day before President Barack Obama is set to give a speech about public surveillance. A report by The Wall Street Journal earlier this week suggested the main topic will be sweeping changes to the agency, which has been embroiled in controversy since last year's leaks by Snowden. That's centered around a suite of surveillance programs outed since those leaks began, including bulk collection of phone records, a project called MUSCULAR that intercepts data from Google and Yahoo's networks, and more recently a program that secretly adds surveillance technology to products purchased online.