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NSA Reportedly Uses Data To Chart Americans' Social Ties

Efforts by the National Security Agency to track potential suspects and find connections between them have led the agency to collate its reams of data with information drawn from sources that include GPS locators and Facebook profiles, according to The New York Times. The newspaper cites documents provided by Edward Snowden, the former NSA contract worker, as well as interview with officials.

"The agency can augment the communications data with material from public, commercial and other sources, including bank codes, insurance information, Facebook profiles, passenger manifests, voter registration rolls and GPS location information," the newspaper says, "as well as property records and unspecified tax data, according to the documents."

The alleged practice is part of a broad attempt to use mountains of data to track and find connections among potential suspects. It could, for instance, determine patterns of behavior or determine when two people were in the same location or traveled together.

An NSA spokeswoman tells the Times, "All data queries must include a foreign intelligence justification, period."

But citing an internal NSA memo from 2011, the Times reports that the "large-scale graph analysis" of metadata like that described in the documents can be done without verifying the "foreignness" of every e-mail address or phone number.

The newspaper also cites NSA documents that describe a catch-all database called Mainway, into which a large number of phone numbers, e-mail addresses and other data flow.

"An internal N.S.A. bulletin, for example, noted that in 2011 Mainway was taking in 700 million phone records per day," the Times reports. "In August 2011, it began receiving an additional 1.1 billion cellphone records daily from an unnamed American service provider," according to the report."

The allegations about the NSA program comes days after four senators introduced legislation that targets the NSA's practice of collecting Americans' phone records in bulk, as the Two-Way reported Wednesday.

After the Times report emerged Saturday, the American Civil Liberties Union responded by questioning the agency's rationale for its surveillance in the U.S.

"This report confirms what whistleblowers have been saying for years: the NSA has been monitoring virtually every aspect of Americans' lives – their communications, their associations, even their locations," ACLU Deputy Legal Director Jameel Jaffer said of the actions described in the Times report. "The NSA apparently believes it can conduct this surveillance because 30 years ago the Supreme Court upheld the government's warrantless collection of basic information about a criminal suspect's telephone calls over the course of a single day."

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.