The U.S. intelligence and law-enforcement community has access to a Google-like service that can search a vast amount of data collected and stored by the National Security Agency, according to a new report.
The existence of “ICREACH” was disclosed on Monday by The Intercept based in part on documents distributed to journalists by former government contractor Edward Snowden.
The documents detail ICREACH as a search engine that provides thousands of law-enforcement agents with access to a vast quantity of communications intercepted by NSA agents. The information extends well beyond innocuous metadata to include records of phone calls, Internet conversations, text messages, faxes, cellphone location information and other data, The Intercept reported.
ICREACH does not query telephone metadata belonging to Americans by the NSA as part of a separate bulk collection program, but instead distributes millions of foreign intercepts collected through other programs. Though the material targets foreign citizens, some data almost certainly includes information about innocent Americans in some instances and may even include direct communications with Americans who have not been accused of any wrongdoing.
More than 20 U.S. government agencies have access to ICREACH’s 850 billion records (and growing), including the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Drug Enforcement Agency. Privacy advocates expressed concern that law-enforcement agents may be using the database in routine criminal investigations that have little to do with national security concerns.
Indeed, a report last August by Reuters indicates that at least one agency may be searching the database in such cases. According to the report, DEA agents were instructed to conceal the program from judges and defense attorneys in routine criminal matters in which the database was accessed. Those agents are instead encouraged to “re-create” investigations in an attempt to “cover up” how the information is obtained — a tactic that, if exposed, could lead to mistrials and overturned convictions, lawyers later said.
Reuters noted that the criminal investigations launched by the DEA in which the database was searched “rarely” involved matters of national security.
For its part, the intelligence community is resting on its post-Sept. 11 laurels, touting the program as necessary to protect the homeland from terrorist threats.
“The highest priority of the intelligence community is to work within the constraints of law to collect, analyze and understand information related to potential threats to our national security,” Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) Spokesperson Jeffrey Anchukaitis told The Intercept.
Intelligence officials have long held that allowing analysts to query metadata is less invasive than searching through the actual contents of communications, something that privacy advocates have attempted to dispel. Slides published by The Intercept related to ICREACH gives more ammunition to privacy advocates on that topic: According to one slide, one feature that was expected to roll out in a future version of ICREACH is labeled “Pattern of Life,” which almost certainly means analysts would be able to form a picture of one’s life through so-called unobtrusive metadata.
Because the program targets mainly foreign communications, it is exempt in large part from Congressional oversight under a Reagan-era Executive Order. But the existence of ICREACH, coupled with the knowledge that it likely contains millions of records related to Americans, could re-ignite the debate about just how much the NSA gathers and to whom it distributes its information to — especially if cops who are known to illegally “re-create” investigations have access to the search tool.
Matthew Keys is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine.