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Meet 'Boundless Informant,' the NSA's Tool for Tracking Global Surveillance Data

Megan Garber
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Snapshot, obtained by The Guardian, of Boundless Informant data. As Greenwald and MacAskill note, "the color scheme ranges from green (least subjected to surveillance) through yellow and orange to red (most surveillance)." The "2007" date in the image "relates to the document from which the interactive map derives its top secret classification, not to the map itself." Click here for a larger version. ( The Guardian)

What does the NSA know, and how does it know it?

That's one of the many, many questions that emerged, and that remains largely unanswered, this week. And some of the biggest sub-questions within that extensive collection of unknowns have been these: How, actually, does the agency process the information it collects? How does it distinguish between international surveillance and domestic? And to what extent, when it comes to the surveillance the NSA has been engaged in, is metadata simply, you know, data?

New revelations brought to light by (surprise!) The Guardian may shed some light on those questions. The NSA, Glenn Greenwald and Ewan MacAskill report, "has developed a powerful tool for recording and analyzing where its intelligence comes from." And that in turn, they claim, raises questions about the agency's "repeated assurances to Congress that it cannot keep track of all the surveillance it performs on American communications."

The documents in question provide evidence of a data-mining tool with the Orwellian nickname of "Boundless Informant." The tool, according to a factsheet The Guardian obtained, "allows users to select a country on a map and view the metadata volume and select details about the collections against that country." It was designed, per one document, "to give NSA officials answers to questions like, 'What type of coverage do we have on country X' in 'near real-time by asking the SIGINT [signals intelligence] infrastructure.'"

The metadata includes information the NSA has collected from both computer and telephone networks.

According to a snapshot of a Boundless Informant heatmap that Greenwald and MacAskill obtained, which assigns each nation a color code based on how extensively it is subjected to NSA surveillance, the NSA collected 97 billion pieces of intelligence from computer networks worldwide in March 2013 alone.

The country where the largest amount of intelligence was gathered was, unsurprisingly, Iran: Boundless Informant shows more than 14 billion reports in that period. The second-largest collection came from Pakistan, with 13.5 billion reports. Jordan -- which is, yes, one of America's closest Arab allies -- had 12.7 billion reports. Egypt came in fourth (7.6 billion reports), and India in fifth with 6.3 billion.

And when it comes to the U.S.? "The Boundless Informant documents show the agency collecting almost 3 billion pieces of intelligence from US computer networks over a 30-day period ending in March 2013."

Again, as is the case with the phone-tracking and computer-monitoring that have come to light this week, the focus of Boundless Informant is metadata rather than content. The point seems to be (again) pattern recognition and social network identification rather than direct eavesdropping. 

Yet "other documents seen by The Guardian further demonstrate that the NSA does in fact break down its surveillance intercepts which could allow the agency to determine how many of them are from the U.S.," Greenwald and MacAskill report. And "the level of detail includes individual IP addresses" -- which isn't a direct proxy for an individual user, but can come close to it. In that sense, it's significant that the news of the Boundless Informant system, as The Guardian puts it, "comes amid a struggle between the NSA and its overseers in the Senate over whether it can track the intelligence it collects on American communications."

The NSA's position, in Senate hearings, has been that "it is not technologically feasible to do so." Which is a position that the NSA, through its spokeswoman, continues to hold. As Judith Emmel told The Guardian:

NSA has consistently reported - including to Congress - that we do not have the ability to determine with certainty the identity or location of all communicants within a given communication. That remains the case."

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