The National Security Agency (NSA) has collected almost 200 million text messages a day from across the globe, using them to extract data including location, contact networks and credit card details, The Guardian reported on Thursday.
The report is based on material provided by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.
The documents also reveal that the UK spy agency GCHQ has made use of the NSA database to search the metadata of “untargeted and unwarranted” communications belonging to people in the UK.
The NSA program, codenamed Dishfire, collects “pretty much everything it can”, according to GCHQ documents, rather than merely storing the communications of existing surveillance targets.
The NSA has made extensive use of its vast text message database to extract information on people’s travel plans, contact books, financial transactions and more – including of individuals under no suspicion of illegal activity, according to The Guardian.
An agency presentation from 2011 – subtitled “SMS Text Messages: A Goldmine to Exploit” – reveals the program collected an average of 194 million text messages a day in April of that year.
In addition to storing the messages themselves, a further program known as “Prefer” conducted automated analysis on the untargeted communications.
The Prefer program uses automated text messages such as missed call alerts or texts sent with international roaming charges to extract information, which the agency describes as “content-derived metadata”, and explains that “such gems are not in current metadata stores and would enhance current analytics.
On average, reported The Guardian, each day the NSA was able to extract more than five million missed-call alerts, details of 1.6 million border crossings a day, from network roaming alerts, more than 110,000 names and over 800,000 financial transactions, either through text-to-text payments or linking credit cards to phone users.
The agency was also able to extract geolocation data from more than 76,000 text messages a day, including from “requests by people for route info” and “setting up meetings”.
Other travel information was obtained from itinerary texts sent by travel companies, even including cancellations and delays to travel plans, according to The Guardian.
The revelation the NSA is collecting and extracting personal information from hundreds of millions of global text messages a day is likely to intensify international pressure on U.S. president Barack Obama, who on Friday is set to give his response to the report of his NSA review panel.
In a statement to The Guardian, a spokeswoman for the NSA said any implication that the agency’s collection was “arbitrary and unconstrained is false”. The agency’s capabilities were directed only against “valid foreign intelligence targets” and were subject to stringent legal safeguards, she said.
Snowden's leaking of U.S. spying secrets revealed a global surveillance system of unprecedented proportions, and sparked controversy between the U.S. and foreign leaders that had their privacy breached.
One such diplomatic row was with Germany, whose Chancellor Angela Merkel accused the U.S. of tapping her mobile phone.
It has also been reported that the NSA recorded millions of phone calls in France, including calls involving individuals with no links to terrorism.
Even Israel is not immune from surveillance, as recently leaked Snowden documents showed that the U.S. had been monitoring the email traffic of Israeli officials, including former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and former Defense Minister Ehud Barak.
Glenn Greenwald, the journalist from The Guardian who published some of the Snowden documents, has indicated that there are additional leaked documents, unpublished as of yet, relating to Israel.