The latest in the ongoing revelations for the Ed Snowden leaks is that the NSA and GCHQ are collecting what appears to be hundreds of millions of text messages every day
. While it does try to "minimize" messages involving Americans, it appears to allow access to the rest of the database to the GCHQ in the UK, who does use it to spy on UK phone numbers. GCHQ staff are told to avoid viewing actual content of UK text messages, but it's unclear if that's enforced. As the NSA notes, this database, called DISHFIRE, is "a goldmine to exploit."
And, yes, they're exploiting it. And no, not just against "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.
The NSA runs a program called "Prefer" across all the information in the database to turn up "gems" that it admits "are not in current metadata stores and would enhance current analytics."
The NSA sure does like its smiley faces, doesn't it? Among the data they're able to access? Each day
this data gives them details of "over 800,000 financial transactions, either through text-to-text payments or linking credit cards to phone users." It also tracks travel information from things like itinerary texts as well as cancellations and delays. Thought it was nice that your airline informed you of your flight delay? Sounds like the NSA got to know about it too.
It's not entirely clear from the report how the NSA/GCHQ are getting access to these messages. Reporters spoke to Vodafone, who insisted that they were not handing over such data, but these days, you never know who's being truthful. In response to all of this, the NSA repeated its nearly impossible to believe claim that its "activities are focused and specifically deployed against -- and only against -- valid foreign intelligence targets in response to intelligence requirements." Valid foreign intelligence targets send 200 million text messages a day? Yeah...