India among top targets of spying by NSA
Sep 23, 2013 03:15 AM , By Glenn Greenwald, Shobhan Saxena | 26 comments
In the overall list of countries spied on by NSA programs, India stands at fifth place, with billions of pieces of information plucked from its telephone and internet networks just in 30 days. File Photo: AP
In the overall list of countries spied on by NSA programs, India stands at fifth place, with billions of pieces of information plucked from its telephone and internet networks just in 30 days. File Photo: AP
Snowden’s files show billions of pieces of phone & internet data plucked

Among the BRICS group of emerging nations, which featured quite high on the list of countries targeted by the secret surveillance programs of the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) for collecting telephone data and internet records, India was the number one target of snooping by the American agency.

In the overall list of countries spied on by NSA programs, India stands at fifth place, with billions of pieces of information plucked from its telephone and internet networks just in 30 days.

According to top-secret documents provided to The Hindu by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, the American agency carried out intelligence gathering activities in India using at least two major programs: the first one is Boundless Informant, a data-mining system which keeps track of how many calls and emails are collected by the security agency; and the second one is PRISM, a program which intercepts and collects actual content from the networks. While Boundless Informant was used for monitoring telephone calls and access to the internet in India, PRISM collected information about certain specific issues — not related to terrorism — through Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Yahoo, Apple, YouTube and several other web-based services.

Asked by The Hindu why a friendly country like India was subjected to so much surveillance by the U.S., a spokesman of the U.S. government’s Office of the Director of National Intelligence said: “The U.S. government will respond through diplomatic channels to our partners and allies. While we are not going to comment publicly on every specific alleged intelligence activity, as a matter of policy we have made clear that the United States gathers foreign intelligence of the type gathered by all nations. We value our cooperation with all countries on issues of mutual concern.”The DNI spokesman chose not to respond to questions about how the NSA managed to pick so much data from India — 13.5 billion pieces of information in just one month — especially from its telephone networks, and about whether it had received the cooperation of Indian telecom companies.

Though top Indian officials have been rather dismissive of the disclosures, with Minister for External Affairs Salman Khurshid even defending the U.S. surveillance program by saying that “it is not… actually snooping,” the NSA documents obtained by The Hindu show that Boundless Informant not only keeps track of emails and calls collected by the NSA, it is also used by the agency to give its managers summaries of the intelligence it gathers worldwide, thus making it the foundation of the global surveillance programs created by the world’s biggest and most secretive intelligence agency.

This SIGINT (signal intelligence) system collects electronic surveillance program records or internet data (DNI) and telephone call metadata records (DNR), which is all stored in an NSA archive called GM-PLACE.

Boundless Informant summarises data records from 504 separate DNR and DNI collection sources called SIGADs, the documents show.

Collection of metadata is serious business. Several Information Technology experts The Hindu spoke to said a detailed account of an individual’s private and professional life can be constructed from metadata, which is actually the record of phone number of every caller and recipient; the unique serial number of the phones involved; the time and duration of each phone call; and potentially the location of each caller and recipient at the time of the call. The same applies to e-mails and other Internet activities of an individual. The high volume of metadata taken from India — 6.2 billion in just one month — means that the U.S. agency collected information on millions of calls, messages and emails every day within India, or between India and a foreign country.

The information collected is part of a bigger surveillance system.

According to a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) memo, an “Unclassified” and “For Official Use Only” document which has been obtained by The Hindu, Boundless Informant is a tool of the NSA’s Global Access Operations (GAO), whose motto is “The Mission Never Sleeps,” for a self-documenting SIGINT system. The tool, says the FAQs memo, “provides the ability to dynamically describe GAO’s collection capabilities (through metadata record counts) with no human intervention and graphically display the information in a map view, bar chart, or simple table”. The memo even describes how “by extracting information from every DNI and DNR metadata record, the tool is able to create a near real-time snapshot of GAO’s collection capability at any given moment.”

It’s the maps, which provide snapshots of the Boundless Informant data that actually show how intensely India was targeted by the NSA. As per one “global heat map” seen by The Hindu, just in March 2013, the U.S. agency collected 6.3 billion pieces of information from the Internet network in India. Another NSA heat map shows that the American agency collected 6.2 billion pieces of information from the country’s telephone networks during the same period.

Three “global heat maps,” which give each country a colour code based on how extensively it was subjected to NSA surveillance, clearly show that India was one of the hottest targets for U.S. intelligence. With the colour scheme ranging from green (least subjected to surveillance) through yellow and orange to red (most surveillance), the heat maps show India in the shades of deep orange and red even as fellow BRICS nations like Brazil, Russia and China — all monitored extensively — sit in green or yellow zones.

In the first heat map, showing the aggregate of data tracked by Boundless Informant in March 2013, with 14 billion reports, Iran was the country where the largest amount of intelligence was gathered. It’s followed by 13.5 billion from Pakistan. Jordan came third with 12.7 billion, Egypt fourth with 7.6 billion, and India fifth with 6.3 billion.

In the heat map that gives the overview of internet surveillance (DNI), with 6.3 billion pieces of intelligence taken from its networks, India is placed between Iran and Pakistan (both red) and China and the U.S. (both light orange). Both Brazil and Russia are coded in light green in this map, while China is shown in light orange.

In the third heat map, depicting collection of telephone records (DNR), India is shown in deep orange, with 6.2 billion pieces of information plucked from its telephone networks. In the case of DNR collection, India is the only BRICS country to share the same colour as the other highly-monitored countries like Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Venezuela; the other four emerging nations are in the green zone in this map.

Though India raised the issue of NSA surveillance when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visited New Delhi on June 24 to take part in the India-U.S. Strategic Dialogue, New Delhi seemed to have bought the official American version of the story. “We had an issue, which was discussed when Secretary Kerry was in India,” Mr. Khurshid had said on July 2. “He [Mr. Kerry] made a very clear explanation that no content has been sought or received of any email… So, I think as far as we are concerned, there is no issue today,” the Indian minister had said.

It’s true that Boundless Informant doesn’t intercept content, but the top-secret documents obtained by The Hindu show that this internal NSA tool focusses on counting and categorising the telephone calls and Internet records as well as on storing and retrieving it, which could give intelligence-gathering agents the records of calls and message times, identities, addresses and other information needed to track people or pick content.

Because this metadata is machine-readable, and therefore searchable, it makes intensive surveillance possible as the record of a person’s email logs, phone records and clickstream — all the websites visited ever — are available to NSA agents, without a warrant or court order. Citizen’s rights groups see it as a serious violation of people’s privacy and personal data. “By accessing metadata, you can learn an awful lot about an individual. With mobile phones, location data has now been added to metadata. With the Internet, you can in addition understand someone’s location in a social network in much more detail, as well as understand how that network relates to other networks. If you put all of this together, you get quite a detailed map of someone’s movements, who they hang out and what drives their lives,” said Anja Kovacs, project director at Internet Democracy Project, a New Delhi-based group working for online freedom of speech.

In a recent example of how metadata can be misused by the government, a couple of Associated Press reporters were subpoenaed by the U.S. Justice Department in a case involving a national security issue. The journalists were sent notices after the department procured the details of their calls with their sources, sparking a conflict between the media and the White House over press freedom.

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Showing 10 latest comments
  • Will the Indian Government launch official protest and sever its diplomatic ties with US until they offer unconditional apologies for their acts? Our sovereignty is affected and we have to show our teeth.
    From: murthyb
    Posted: Sep 23, 2013 at 15:47 IST
  • How is it possible to gather billion pieces of evidence without snooping on Indian carriers? Some years earlier, Airtel had outsourced all its network operations to a US company - IBM. And so did a few other providers. Did the US government access network metadata of Indian telecom providers through IBM? Or did they hack into the providers' networks through other means? Or was this through embedded equipment that acts as a Trojan horse for passing on information? These questions need to be top of mind for the government. Why is the government brushing things under the carpet? Were they in the know? Are they using it to gain political advantage over their rivals? Is the US government using this to install a puppet regime that acquiesces to their business interests in India? This is feasible, especially in the light of commercial espionage undertaken by NSA in Brazil. As citizens of a free country, we DEMAND ANSWERS!
    From: Ramesh Hariharan
    Posted: Sep 23, 2013 at 13:37 IST
  • If the government has any spine at all, it should call the US ambassador to the office of the Telecom & IT minister and have him explain this to India in the presence of journalists from the print and television media, IT and telecommunication technologists, and civil liberty champions, who can and should, question the matter. India should not be subservient to anybody any more. If the President of Brazil, Ma'am Dilma Rousseff can stand up to the US by cancelling her visit to that country, let us take this one step further and grill the US on their supercilious attitude towards the rights of common people of the world.
    From: Kay Nathan
    Posted: Sep 23, 2013 at 13:06 IST
  • Denial and complete refusal on all information related to our country's security, sovereignty, democracy and rights means nothing to our politicians. Why meekly surrender to US when BRICS nations like Brazil and China are raising strong voices on US's highhandedness is puzzling to many.
    From: VC Sekhar
    Posted: Sep 23, 2013 at 12:35 IST
  • India should develop its own email service providers and social network sites that are robust and whose servers are in India. So, that our emails and other online data are no longer vulnerable to snooping by another country.
    From: Arup R
    Posted: Sep 23, 2013 at 12:33 IST
  • A reader Mukundan Raman had rightly commented, i would like to reproduce it here- "Indian government won't be upset with this. They will ask the US why would they fetch data in secrecy. India would be even ready to give the passwords of their servers to the US."
    From: Sayed
    Posted: Sep 23, 2013 at 12:08 IST
  • All these are contrived arguments. I, for one, am not concerned if my emails are looked into by US agency or our Government. Don't they have better things to do. What they are not looking for some local gossip. They are interested to know if I am in touch with somebody in Yemen or Pakistan or Afghanistan. I want them to be continuing to do that for my own and India's safety. Let us not manufacture dissent where there is no need for one.
    From: ramanan
    Posted: Sep 23, 2013 at 12:07 IST
  • President Rousseff has rightly condemned the snooping by US agency NSA as compared to indian EA ministry who showed no sign of concern for safegaurding privacy of indian citizens , government information & indian private firms .Although information tracked by NSA from india( Red band) is much more as comapred to Brazil(green band). So every move by Indian govt. for safegaurding their national interest was tracked by NSA.NSA may have not just tracked for security reasons but to track the stratergic moves by india. This is clear breach of india's national security & stratergic interests.
    From: Lav
    Posted: Sep 23, 2013 at 11:39 IST
  • The congress ministry is always in denial mode and they continue to sideline the issue since they have no spine to appose world super power. Poor Indian ministries, what power they have to stand against USA..Nothing and we can understand the position and they will continue as if nothing happened. We Indian voters should be ashamed to have chosen this kind of govt at the center and it's disgusting. whatever and how much volume Hindu writes, Congress at center will not moved as same as stone.
    From: john
    Posted: Sep 23, 2013 at 11:01 IST
  • It is not new (or News) that CIA (or now NSA) is spying our country.When Rajiv Gandhi was Prime Minister,P.Chidambaram was minister of state for personnel affairs.One Panikkar (RAW-SP)took LTTE chief Prabakaran to Thimbu to hold talks with Srilankan Government.The details of talks held at Thimbu were handed over to CIA by Panikkar the very next day. So Panikkar was arrested and put behind bars.This is the press statement issued by P.chidambaram published in The Hindu at that time .
    Posted: Sep 23, 2013 at 10:57 IST