WASHINGTON — The National Security Agency is able to crack protective measures on iPhones, BlackBerry, and Android devices, giving it access to users’ data on all major smart phones, according to a report Sunday in a German newsmagazine.
Der Spiegel cited documents from the NSA and its British counterpart in which the agencies describe setting up teams for each type of phone in an effort to gather intelligence on potential threats such as terrorists.
The data obtained includes contacts, call lists, text message traffic, notes, and location information, Der Spiegel reported.
The documents do not indicate that the NSA is conducting mass surveillance of phone users, but rather that these techniques are used to eavesdrop on specific individuals, the magazine said.
The article does not explain how the magazine obtained the documents, described as “secret.”
But one of its authors is Laura Poitras, an American filmmaker with close contacts to NSA leaker Edward Snowden. She has published several articles about the NSA in Der Spiegel in recent weeks.
The documents outline how, starting in May, 2009, intelligence agents were unable to access some information on BlackBerry phones for about a year after the Canadian manufacturer began using a new method to compress the data. After the British agency cracked that problem, analysts celebrated their achievement with the word “champagne,” Der Spiegel reported.
In 2011, the Obama Administration secretly won permission from a surveillance court to reverse restrictions on NSA’s use of intercepted phone calls and emails, permitting the agency to search deliberately for Americans’ communications in its massive databases, according to interviews with government officials and recently declassified material.
The court extended the time the NSA may retain intercepted U.S. communications from five years to six, and more under special circumstances, according to the documents. They include a recently released 2011 opinion by U.S. District Judge John Bates, then chief judge of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
What had not been previously acknowledged is that the court in 2008 imposed an explicit ban — at the government’s request — on those kinds of searches; that officials in 2011 got the court to lift the bar, and that the search authority has been used.
Together the permission to search and to keep data longer expanded the NSA’s authority in significant ways without public debate or specific authority from Congress.
The enlarged authority is part of a fundamental shift in the government’s approach to surveillance: collecting first, and protecting Americans’ privacy later. The court decision allowed the NSA “to query the vast majority” of its email and phone call databases using the email addresses and phone numbers of Americans and legal residents without a warrant, according to Judge Bates’ opinion. The queries must be “reasonably likely to yield foreign intelligence information.” And the results are subject to NSA privacy rules.
The court in 2008 imposed a wholesale ban on such searches at the government’s request, said Alex Joel, civil liberties protection officer in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. But in 2011, to more effectively identify relevant foreign intelligence communications, “we did ask the court” to lift the ban, ODNI general counsel Robert Litt said. “We wanted to be able to do it,” he said, referring to the searching of Americans’ communications without a warrant.