Sunday, July 06, 2014

Canadian communications caught in NSA collection

A Washington Post analysis of roughly 160,000 intercepted communications taken from NSA files by Edward Snowden indicates that nearly 90% of the communications originated from account holders who "were not the intended surveillance targets but were caught in a net the agency had cast for somebody else" (Barton Gellman, Julie Tate & Ashkan Soltani, "In NSA-intercepted data, those not targeted far outnumber the foreigners who are," Washington Post, 5 July 2014).

The analysis also found that a large proportion of the collected communications contained the names, IP addresses, e-mail addresses, or other information about U.S. and other Five Eyes persons and companies.
Many of them were Americans. Nearly half of the surveillance files, a strikingly high proportion, contained names, e-mail addresses or other details that the NSA marked as belonging to U.S. citizens or residents.
The following graphic, which accompanied the Washington Post story, shows that a large number of Canadian and British "identifiers" were also to be found within the communications.



No numbers accompany the non-U.S. portions of the chart, unfortunately, but it is possible to estimate them by measuring the relative sizes of the portions.

The Canadian portion of the chart is about 16% of the size of the U.S. portion, which indicates that it contains about 19,100 identifiers in total, including about 15,600 Canadian IP addresses and about 1350 Canadian company names. It also suggests, although this is less certain, that Canadian identifiers may have appeared in as many as 8% of the intercepts examined (some intercepts would contain multiple identifiers).

The other boxes in the Canadian portion of the chart are unlabeled, so the number of Canadian persons that were identified in the traffic is not evident.

As noted in the Washington Post story, identifiers associated with the U.S. or other Five Eyes countries were mostly "minimized" in the intercepts (for example, U.S. names were replaced by the phrase "MIN U.S. PERSON"). However, the original identity information in such cases is retained in the NSA's files and can be restored if the client utilizing the intercept can justify a request for the information.

It would be interesting to know if the Canadian government is consulted when U.S. clients seek to unmask Canadian information (and, if so, how often it approves such requests).

The article does not indicate whether the intercepts that contained Canadian identifiers were all collected by the NSA (or other non-Canadian agencies) or may have been supplied in part by Canada. We also do not know how fully the Canadian government itself is able to access NSA intercepts containing Canadian information and the nature of the limitations that may or may not be in place on its access to unminimized data.

Update 11 July 2014:

News coverage: Patrick McGuire, "Now We Know Even More about How the NSA Invades Canada’s Privacy," Vice, 11 July 2014.

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