The latest leak coming from NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden’s trove involves a “Google-like” search engine for communications metadata called ICREACH. The program was described in a Monday article in The Intercept.
ICREACH appears to be one of the main tools that the NSA uses to share metadata with 23 other U.S. government agencies, including the FBI, CIA and DEA, as well as with corresponding signals intelligence agencies in the other four members of the Anglophone “Five Eyes” club: Canada, the U.K., New Zealand and Australia.
Metadata is data that describes data. In this case, the communications metadata shared through ICREACH reportedly covers “emails, phone calls, faxes, internet chats, and text messages, as well as location information collected from cellphones.”
According to memos leaked by Snowden, the ICREACH program went live in 2007 under “mastermind” Keith Alexander, the former NSA director, as a way of helping analysts sift through a multitude of databases. It was apparently the successor to earlier systems called CRISSCROSS and PROTON.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence told The Intercept that the relevant metadata is collected under Executive Order 12333, which allows the collection of data outside the U.S. with little oversight.
This means it almost certainly includes data on people inside the U.S. who interacted with people or services outside the country’s borders, although the documents suggest this information is “minimized” — anonymized — before being used within the U.S. That said, the identifying information that’s stripped out is still held for up to five years for investigatory purposes.
Legal and intelligence experts told the publication that they were concerned about the possibility of “parallel reconstruction,” whereby agencies use surveillance information to trigger investigations, then cover up those origins by the time the cases get to court.