Monday 10 February, 2014
In January 2014, it was revealed that the National Security Agency (NSA) in the US and the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in the UK are conducting more intrusive spying then we thought.
A project called Dishfire, operated by the two governmental spy agencies, does an untargeted sweep of text messages across the globe. It snags 200 million text messages daily and gives the agencies reports on various types of activity. The existence of Dishfire was revealed to the Guardian and the UK’s Channel 4 news service through top secret documents supplied by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.
You’re Being Watched
Dishfire collects around 200 million text messages a day and runs them through a system called Prefer. The document leaked to the press says, ‘This makes it particularly useful for the development of new targets, since it is possible to examine the content of messages sent months or even years before the target was known to be of interest.’ So, the agencies gather texts from innocent people just in case they do something illegal.
A 2011 presentation referred to in the documents is called ‘SMS Text Messages: A Goldmine to Exploit.’ The Guardian posted several screenshots of daily reports the agencies receive. The reports detail border crossings, missed calls (through which it can establish contacts), financial transactions, automatic text messages like payment confirmations or notifications, travel booking confirmations, and more.
Spying on Your Own Citizens
The NSA is restricted by law from spying on US citizens, although it’s widely known that the agency does indeed spy on citizens. The agency says it conducts minimized surveillance of Americans.
A spokesperson from the NSA has said of the program, ‘Dishfire is a system that processes and stores lawfully collected SMS data. Because some SMS data of US persons may at times be incidentally collected in NSA’s lawful foreign intelligence mission, privacy protections for US persons exist across the entire process concerning the use, handling, retention and dissemination of SMS data in Dishfire.”
However, how this is done is one of the agency’s many secrets. We’ll probably never know and there are no checks and balances in place except for the agency’s own judgment. The NSA claims that US data is removed. Even if this is true, this means that foreign data isn’t.
Likewise, the GCHQ is not supposed to spy on British citizens, but it was revealed that it receives intelligence from the NSA, which makes the restriction on spying on Brits completely meaningless. With both agencies sharing information back and forth, it really doesn’t matter anymore.
The Dishfire story broke just hours ahead of President Obama’s State of the Union Address, where he made vague promises about reforming the NSA’s spy programs.