NSA harvests 200M of SMSes every day with untargeted, global "Dishfire" program

The latest Snowden leak details DISHFIRE, a joint NSA/GCHQ program to slurp up hundreds of millions of SMS messages from global mobile phone users. Included in the program are text messages to and from Americans, though these are apparently subsequently purged. The UK spy agency GCHQ also makes extensive use of the database. Text messages are stored for long terms, so that spies can do historic lookups on people they target. The DISHFIRE database allows for full-text search.

Vodaphone expressed shock and outrage at the news that its customers' private messages were being harvested without a warrant or due process, characterising the program as outside the law.


“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.

NSA collects millions of text messages daily in 'untargeted' global sweep [James Ball/The Guardian]

(Thanks, Sergei!)

Notable Replies

  1. Nelsie says:

    "Development of new targets" — what a chilling phrase, so many unexamined assumptions, so careless of consequence.

  2. nic says:

    If you have worked in IT for large corporates at any time in the last decade (especially if you are at the decision making level) you would have been invited to an endless stream of vendor lunches promoting Data Warehousing and CRM products. The only vendors that are able to supply the NSA with infrastructure on the apparent scale they are operating at are the usual suspects in the top tier enterprise market. They are building massive aggregated data repositories that are probably technically 'legal' if you look at it from a certain conceited angle.

    Dishfire, PRISM, MUSCULAR, Fairview etc are 'operational systems' that feed raw data into the ETL Layer and are completely insulated from the end analysis of data. Snowden claimed that as a consultant, he could look up data on anybody, so there appears to be a monolithic aggregated data warehouse, or more likely, a federated database system offering a common schema to query constituent databases internationally (I have written more than my fair share of proposals and documentation).

    On the output side, Data marts at various levels of classification let them dig through the dataset. XKeyscore is an example of an internationally available tool that queries a data mart that provides a selection of intelligence information to friendly intelligence agencies. It is query based, and will gather information on those queries based on a 24hr - 30 day buffer, but if something of particular interest is discovered, more precise queries can retroactively gather additional information. This is a data mart with a relatively small 'Operational Data Store' attached to a data warehouse system.

    If UK had, under the umbrella of UKUSA, access to a data mart that provided them with a subset of the aggregated NSA data that excluded UK citizens (apart from those allowed under Anti-Terrorism acts), that would be kosher, in their humble opinion. Likewise, the US can build data marts that query the warehouse excluding US citizens. The UK can submit information that it has 'discovered' about US citizens without penalty under UKUSA and vice versa.

    The US is probably also free to build highly classified datamarts that directly query the entire data warehouse, stricly for use in extraordinary circumstances. You know, in case of war, or martial law or something. Ok, just this once....

    It is tempting to see what the US is doing as some sort of Manhattan Project of surveillance, or 'Skynet', but the reality is far more disappointing. The whole thing is standard enterprise architecture practice, and owes more to IBM Rational System Architect than Orwell. If you want a vision of the future, imagine a sales consultant clicking through powerpoint slides - forever.

  3. I like the fake corporate outrage from Vodafone. They were exposed as longtime partners of the GCHQ in a previous leak.

  4. I just continued to be amazed that Snowden had access to such disparate programs.

    For example, it's just terrible opsec that he had access to both this SMS program and the radio program. They are just so different that the type of unfettered access to the details of both is something that I can't imagine he had at his level, let alone the scores of other information he's released.

    I will not be surprised to learn that he had help in obtaining some of this info.

  5. It's probably a sad sign that the thing that has me most outraged at this point is that the slide uses the word "metacontent" to replace the perfectly good "content", which anyway would be the correct term for what they're collecting - the content of text messages.

    I just can't bestir myself to outrage at the NSA's abuses of US citizens, the constitution, democratic oversight - the only thing that gets a reaction anymore is their abuse of the English language.

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