The NSA is collecting—and storing for up to 365 days—the metadata of millions of internet users, sometimes even if they're not connected to a terrorism target. Don't go gasping with disbelief too quickly. You should be used to this kind of news by now.
The Guardian reported this latest, heart-sinking NSA news on Monday and didn't skimp on the details. The program, codenamed Marina, is capable of providing a comprehensive picture of an internet user's online life, including web searches, email activity and even passwords. NSA training documents provided by Edward Snowden explain:
The Marina metadata application tracks a user's browser experience, gathers contact information/content and develops summaries of target. … Of the more distinguishing features, Marina has the ability to look back on the last 365 days' worth of DNI metadata seen by the Sigint collection system, regardless whether or not it was tasked for collection.
That last part is pretty important. While the NSA continues to promise that it's only pursuing potential terrorists, these latest documents yet again suggest that plenty of those surveilled are unsuspecting US citizens. And thanks to Marina's year-long memory, the spies can just sit back and wait for a reason to rifle through random people's internet data.
Why is this happening? Well, if you listen to the NSA, it's happening because this is how you protect America from terrorists, and it's all legal, too, by the way, so why are you mad? The agency provided The Guardian with a dodgy statement:
We know there is a false perception out there that NSA listens to the phone calls and reads the email of everyday Americans, aiming to unlawfully monitor or profile US citizens. It's just not the case.
NSA's activities are directed against foreign intelligence targets in response to requirements from US leaders in order to protect the nation and its interests from threats such as terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
Note that the NSA isn't necessarily lying here. That is, depending on your definition of the word "listens" or "reads," it doesn't. According to this latest document cache, the NSA just stores all of the metadata—"without regard to the nationality or location of the communicants" according to The New York Times—for later analysis. The Times goes on to report that the NSA is creating sophisticated graphs of American citizens' social connections, even down to their locations at specific times.