As the world awaits US President Obama’s official announcement of his plans for an NSA reform, The Guardian disclosed details of yet another NSA bulk data collection program described in a memo of the UK Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) and an NSA presentation.
This one’s name is “Dishfire”, a program aimed at collecting SMS messages around the world in order to be able to extract from them location, payment, contact, travel data and more, to discover the activities of current but also future targets.
The collection itself is untargeted, but the collected data is obviously being stored for future analysis.
“In contrast to [most] GCHQ equivalents, Dishfire contains a large volume of unselected SMS traffic. 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,” it is disclosed in the GCHQ memo from 2011.
The NSA presentation reveals that in April 2011, the program collected 194 million text messages a day on average, and that the stored messages could be searched and analysed via another program dubbed “Prefer”.
Two things are interesting to note: one, that messages sent from and to US phone numbers are removed from the database as soon as possible so that the NSA can focus on “valid foreign intelligence targets” and, two, that the UK GCHQ is able to use the program but its analysts are prohibited by UK law from peeking into the contents of messages sent to and from UK phone numbers unless they have warrant to do so.
“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,” an NSA spokeswoman has commented for The Guardian. “In addition, NSA actively works to remove extraneous data, to include that of innocent foreign citizens, as early as possible in the process.”
Another thing good to mention is that all this information about the program was likely true in 2011, but things could have changed since then.