The National Security Agency has collected almost 200 million text messages a day from across the globe, using them to extract data including location, contact networks and credit card details, according to top-secret documents.
The untargeted collection and storage of SMS messages – including
their contacts – is revealed in a joint investigation between the
Guardian and the UK’s Channel 4 News based on material provided by NSA
whistleblower Edward Snowden.
The documents also reveal the UK spy agency GCHQ has made use of the
NSA database to search the metadata of “untargeted and unwarranted”
communications belonging to people in the UK.
The NSA program, codenamed Dishfire, collects “pretty much everything
it can”, according to GCHQ documents, rather than merely storing the
communications of existing surveillance targets.
The NSA has made extensive use of its vast text message database to
extract information on people’s travel plans, contact books, financial
transactions and more – including of individuals under no suspicion of
An agency presentation from 2011 – subtitled “SMS Text Messages: A
Goldmine to Exploit” – reveals the program collected an average of 194
million text messages a day in April of that year. In addition to
storing the messages themselves, a further program known as “Prefer”
conducted automated analysis on the untargeted communications.
The Prefer program uses automated text messages such as missed call
alerts or texts sent with international roaming charges to extract
information, which the agency describes as “content-derived metadata”,
and explains that “such gems are not in current metadata stores and
would enhance current analytics”.
On average, each day the NSA was able to extract:
• More than 5 million missed-call alerts, for use in contact-chaining
analysis (working out someone’s social network from who they contact
• Details of 1.6 million border crossings a day, from network roaming alerts
• More than 110,000 names, from electronic business cards, which also included the ability to extract and save images.
• Over 800,000 financial transactions, either through text-to-text payments or linking credit cards to phone users
The agency was also able to extract geolocation data from more than
76,000 text messages a day, including from “requests by people for route
info” and “setting up meetings”. Other travel information was obtained
from itinerary texts sent by travel companies, even including
cancellations and delays to travel plans.
Communications from US phone numbers, the documents suggest, were
removed (or “minimized”) from the database – but those of other
countries, including the UK, were retained.
The revelation the NSA is collecting and extracting personal
information from hundreds of millions of global text messages a day is
likely to intensify international pressure on US president Barack Obama,
who on Friday is set to give his response to the report of his NSA
While US attention has focused on whether the NSA’s controversial
phone metadata program will be discontinued, the panel also suggested US
spy agencies should pay more consideration to the privacy rights of
foreigners, and reconsider spying efforts against allied heads of state
In a statement to the Guardian, a spokeswoman for the NSA said any
implication that the agency’s collection was “arbitrary and
unconstrained is false”. The agency’s capabilities were directed only
against “valid foreign intelligence targets” and were subject to
stringent legal safeguards, she said.
The ways in which the UK spy agency GCHQ has made use of the NSA
Dishfire database also seems likely to raise questions on the scope of
While GCHQ is not allowed to search through the content of messages
without a warrant – though the contents are stored rather than deleted
or “minimized” from the database – the agency’s lawyers decided analysts
were able to see who UK phone numbers had been texting, and search for
them in the database.
The GCHQ memo sets out in clear terms what the agency’s access to
Dishfire allows it to do, before handling how UK communications should
be treated. The unique property of Dishfire, it states, is how much
untargeted or unselected information it stores.
“In contrast to [most] GCHQ equivalents, DISHFIRE contains a large volume of unselected SMS
traffic,” it states (emphasis original). “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 later explains in plain terms how useful this capability can be.
Comparing Dishfire favourably to a GCHQ counterpart which only collects
against phone numbers that have specifically been targeted, it states
“Dishfire collects pretty much everything it can, so you can see SMS
from a selector which is not targeted”.
The document also states the database allows for broad, bulk searches
of keywords which could result in a high number of hits, rather than
just narrow searches against particular phone numbers: “It is also
possible to search against the content in bulk (e.g. for a name or home telephone number) if the target’s mobile phone number is not known.”
Analysts are warned to be careful when searching content for terms
relating to UK citizens or people currently residing in the UK, as these
searches could be successful but would not be legal without a warrant
or similar targeting authority.
However, a note from GCHQ’s operational legalities team, dated May
2008, states agents can search Dishfire for “events” data relating to UK
numbers – who is contacting who, and when.
“You may run a search of UK numbers in DISHFIRE in order to retrieve
only events data,” the note states, before setting out how an analyst
can prevent himself seeing the content of messages when he searches – by
toggling a single setting on the search tool.
Once this is done, the document continues, “this will now enable you
to run a search without displaying the content of the SMS, especially
useful for untargeted and unwarranted UK numbers.”
A separate document gives a sense of how large-scale each Dishfire
search can be, asking analysts to restrain their searches to no more
than 1,800 phone numbers at a time.
The note warns analysts they must be careful to make sure they use
the form’s toggle before searching, as otherwise the database will
return the content of the UK messages – which would, without a warrant,
cause the analyst to “unlawfully be seeing the content of the SMS”.
The note also adds that the NSA automatically removes all “US-related
SMS” from the database, so it is not available for searching.
A GCHQ spokesman refused to comment on any particular matters, but
said all its intelligence activities were in compliance with UK law and
But Vodafone, one of the world’s largest mobile phone companies with
operations in 25 countries including Britain, greeted the latest
revelations with shock.
“It’s the first we’ve heard about it and naturally we’re shocked and
surprised,” the group’s privacy officer and head of legal for privacy,
security and content standards told Channel 4 News.
“What you’re describing sounds concerning to us because the regime
that we are required to comply with is very clear and we will only
disclose information to governments where we are legally compelled to do
so, won’t go beyond the law and comply with due process.
“But what you’re describing is something that sounds as if that’s
been circumvented. And for us as a business this is anathema because our
whole business is founded on protecting privacy as a fundamental
He said the company would be challenging the UK government over this.
“From our perspective, the law is there to protect our customers and it
doesn’t sound as if that is what is necessarily happening.”
The NSA’s access to, and storage of, the content of communications of
UK citizens may also be contentious in the light of earlier Guardian
revelations that the agency was drafting policies to facilitate spying
on the citizens of its allies, including the UK and Australia, which
would – if enacted – enable the agency to search its databases for UK
citizens without informing GCHQ or UK politicians.
The documents seen by the Guardian were from an internal
Wikipedia-style guide to the NSA program provided for GCHQ analysts, and
noted the Dishfire program was “operational” at the time the site was
accessed, in 2012.
The documents do not, however, state whether any rules were
subsequently changed, or give estimates of how many UK text messages are
collected or stored in the Dishfire system, or from where they are
In the statement, the NSA spokeswoman said: “As we have previously
stated, the implication that NSA's collection is arbitrary and
unconstrained is false.
“NSA's activities are focused and specifically deployed against – and
only against – valid foreign intelligence targets in response to
“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 addition, NSA actively works to remove extraneous data, to
include that of innocent foreign citizens, as early as possible in the
The agency draws a distinction between the bulk collection of
communications and the use of that data to monitor or find specific
A spokesman for GCHQ refused to respond to any specific queries
regarding Dishfire, but said the agency complied with UK law and
“It is a longstanding policy that we do not comment on intelligence
matters,” he said. “Furthermore, all of GCHQ's work is carried out in
accordance with a strict legal and policy framework which ensures that
our activities are authorised, necessary and proportionate, and that
there is rigorous oversight, including from the Secretary of State, the
Interception and Intelligence Services Commissioners and the
Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee.”
GCHQ also directed the Guardian towards a statement made to the House
of Commons in June 2013 by foreign secretary William Hague, in response
to revelations of the agency’s use of the Prism program.
“Any data obtained by us from the US involving UK nationals is
subject to proper UK statutory controls and safeguards, including the
relevant sections of the Intelligence Services Act, the Human Rights Act
and the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act,” Hague told MPs.