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NSA mines Facebook for connections, including Americans' profiles

By David Simpson and Pamela Brown, CNN
September 30, 2013 -- Updated 1304 GMT (2104 HKT)
Jonathan Pollard is a divisive figure in U.S.-Israeli relations. The former U.S. Navy intelligence analyst was caught spying for Israel in 1985 and was sentenced in 1987 to life imprisonment. The United States and Israel are discussing his possible release as part of efforts to save fragile Middle East peace negotiations, according to sources familiar with the talks. Click through the gallery to see other high-profile leak scandals the United States has seen over the years. Jonathan Pollard is a divisive figure in U.S.-Israeli relations. The former U.S. Navy intelligence analyst was caught spying for Israel in 1985 and was sentenced in 1987 to life imprisonment. The United States and Israel are discussing his possible release as part of efforts to save fragile Middle East peace negotiations, according to sources familiar with the talks. Click through the gallery to see other high-profile leak scandals the United States has seen over the years.
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Sharing secrets: U.S. intelligence leaks
Sharing secrets: U.S. intelligence leaks
Sharing secrets: U.S. intelligence leaks
Sharing secrets: U.S. intelligence leaks
Sharing secrets: U.S. intelligence leaks
Sharing secrets: U.S. intelligence leaks
Sharing secrets: U.S. intelligence leaks
Sharing secrets: U.S. intelligence leaks
Sharing secrets: U.S. intelligence leaks
Sharing secrets: U.S. intelligence leaks
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Policy change in 2010 permits NSA social mapping program
  • Latest disclosure in The New York Times comes from documents provided by Edward Snowden
  • NSA repeats it does not listen to calls or read e-mails without court permission
  • Legal expert: Newly disclosed system "tells an extraordinary amount about who you are"

New York (CNN) -- In addition to phone records and email logs, the National Security Agency uses Facebook and other social media profiles to create maps of social connections -- including those of American citizens.

The revelation was disclosed by the New York Times on Sunday, using documents provided to the newspaper by former government contractor Edward Snowden.

"We assume as Americans that if somebody in the government is looking at your information, it's because they have a reason, because you're suspected of a crime," Karen Greenberg, director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School, told CNN.

But the documents do not specify how many Americans' social connections have been analyzed, or whether any have been implicated in wrongdoing.

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National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden poses with German Green party parliamentarian Hans-Christian Stroebele in Moscow on October 31. Stroebele returned from the meeting with a letter from Snowden to German authorities, which was distributed to the media. In it, Snowden said he is confident that with international support, the United States would abandon its efforts to "treat dissent as defection" and "criminalize political speech with felony charges." National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden poses with German Green party parliamentarian Hans-Christian Stroebele in Moscow on October 31. Stroebele returned from the meeting with a letter from Snowden to German authorities, which was distributed to the media. In it, Snowden said he is confident that with international support, the United States would abandon its efforts to "treat dissent as defection" and "criminalize political speech with felony charges."
NSA leaker Edward Snowden
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Photos: NSA leaker Edward Snowden Photos: NSA leaker Edward Snowden

Change in policy

The surveillance began after a policy change in November 2010.

Prior to then, the "chaining" of a foreign person's contacts had to stop when it reached an American citizen or legal resident.

The policy change was intended to help the NSA "discover and track" connections from a foreign intelligence subject to an American citizen, the leaked documents show.

It allows NSA analysts to use social media, geo-location information, insurance and tax records, plus other public and private sources to enhance their analysis of phone and email records, The Times reported Sunday.

The "metadata" from phone and email records in the database include details such as who a person called or e-mailed.

A PowerPoint slide provided to the newspaper by Snowden shows how analysts use software to create diagrams of where a person was at certain times, their traveling companions, their social networks and email correspondents.

Defending the practice

President Barack Obama has ordered a review of NSA's data collection practices because of Snowden's leaks. But the president has defended the use of such methods to gather intelligence on terrorists and other threats.

In response to the latest disclosure, the NSA again emphasized it does not listen to phone calls or read emails of Americans without obtaining a court order.

But the newly disclosed system "tells an extraordinary amount about who you are ... who your closest allies and friends and colleagues are," Greenberg said.

"To pretend that you have to read the information to be going into what a person is doing is making a false distinction."

Opinion: Give Apple your fingerprint? It's your call

David Simpson reported and wrote from Atlanta, and Pamela Brown reported from New York.

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