Report: NSA scoops up millions of text messages a day

New Snowden leaks come a day before Obama is due to give a speech proposing long-awaited curbs on NSA dragnets

A woman uses her cellphone on Jan. 7, 2014 in Los Angeles, California.
Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

The National Security Agency has collected almost 200 million mobile phone text messages a day from around the world, British media reported Thursday, in the latest revelations from the Edward Snowden files.

The Guardian and Britain's Channel 4 News revealed that the NSA used the messages to extract data on the location, networks and credit card details of mobile users.

The secret files say the program, codenamed Dishfire, collects "pretty much everything it can,” the news organizations said. They cited an internal NSA presentation from 2011 on the program and papers from Britain's electronic eavesdropping facility GCHQ.

Dishfire works by collecting and analyzing automated text messages such as missed call alerts or texts sent to inform users about international roaming charges. It was also able to work out phone users' credit card numbers using texts from banks.

British spies were given access by the NSA to search the collected "metadata" — information about the text messages but not the actual contents — of British citizens, according to the report.

GCHQ said it worked within British law.

"All of GCHQ's work is carried out in accordance with the strict legal and policy framework which ensures that our activities are authorized, necessary and proportionate and that there is rigorous oversight," it said in a statement.

The NSA said its collection of text messages was carried under strict limits under the law and was not arbitrary.

"DISHFIRE is a system that processes and stores lawfully collected SMS data," the spy agency said in a statement.

"Because some SMS data of U.S. persons may at times be incidentally collected in NSA's lawful foreign intelligence mission, privacy protections for U.S. persons exist across the entire process concerning the use, handling, retention and dissemination of SMS data in DISHFIRE," it said, adding that any data on innocent foreign nationals was also removed promptly.

Obama to offer 'reforms'

The report comes a day before President Barack Obama is due to give a long-awaited speech proposing some possible curbs on NSA phone and Internet data dragnets. His speech appears to be an implicit acknowledgment that the trust Americans have in the country's spy operations is shaky at best.

In June, days after the initial disclosure about the NSA’s bulk collection of telephone data from millions of people, Obama made an appeal to the public.

"I think on balance, we have established a process and a procedure that the American people should feel comfortable about.”

But it would soon appear they didn’t. In August, Obama acknowledged that his initial assumptions about how the public would respond to the revelations had been "undermined."

Obama’s focus is expected to be on steps that increase oversight and transparency to address the public’s worries, while largely leaving the framework of the programs in place. He will likely back the creation of an independent public advocate on the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which approves the bulk collections and currently only hears arguments from the government.

In the speech, Obama is also likely to make an attempt to appease foreign leaders, such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, whose personal communications were monitored by the NSA.

It's unclear whether announcements will shift the leaders’ or the public's views. Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who broke the story on the Snowden files, told Al Jazeera that people will be expecting more from the president than just “a pretty speech.”

“I think there is a real question about whether we ought to have a government that is collecting billions of pieces of communication each day,” he said. Greenwald called such a regime “a surveillance state,” and asked, “Are we going to dismantle this machinery?”

Privacy advocates are already criticizing Obama's expected announcements as insufficient.

"While we welcome the president's acknowledgment that reforms must be made, we warn the president not to expect thunderous applause for cosmetic reforms," said David Segal, executive director of the civil liberties group Demand Progress.

The president discussed the details of Friday's speech during a telephone call with British Prime Minister David Cameron on Thursday, according to Cameron's Downing Street office.

During the discussion, the two leaders "welcomed the unique intelligence sharing relationship between their two countries," according to the statement.

Snowden remains in exile in Russia, where he has been granted temporary asylum.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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