New details from NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden have shown the existence of Project Marina, a metadata collection system that collects details on the activity of almost all internet users, regardless of whether they are legitimate subjects for enquiry or not.
The US government has always insisted that – as far as possible – data is only collected on either non-US citizens or people deemed worthy of investigation. But according to a training manual obtained by Snowden, all the internet metadata slurped by the NSA's surveillance apparatus is fed into Marina and stored for a year so that analysts can pore over it.
"The Marina metadata application tracks a user's browser experience, gathers contact information/content and develops summaries of target," the analysts' guide leaked to The Guardian explains – a statement that sounds remarkably like Facebook's business plan.
"This tool offers the ability to export the data in a variety of formats, as well as create various charts to assist in pattern-of-life development," the manual says, "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." [Emphasis in original.]
Marina gets its metadata from such sources as the PRISM scheme the agency runs with commercial partners, data it buys from other companies, feeds from its taps on international data pipelines, and other sources. Oddly, the phone metadata the NSA collects is not included in Marina, possibly for compliance purposes.
In a response to the latest leak, the NSA told the paper that its data collection follows procedures approved by the US attorney general and the secretary of defense, which safeguard the privacy of US citizens.
"All queries of lawfully collected data must be conducted for a foreign intelligence purpose," it said. "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." ®