Alex Witt   |  October 20, 2013

Snowden: NSA collecting email addresses

MSNBC’s Alex Witt talks with Greg Miller of The Washington Post about the current extent of the NSA’s internet surveillance and drone strikes.

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>>> shocking new details about the extent of the government's internet surveillance. documents released by edward snowden to "the washington post " reportedly show that the nsa is collecting hundreds of millions of e- mail address books and instant messaging contact lists from people around the world, and that includes americans . and we're learning more now about how some of this nsa data is being used to located drone targets. greg miller has been covering all these stories. we welcome you. how is it happening, how is the nsa using this address book information?

>> you can see the address book information, i think, helps us understand how they make use of these other databases that emerged as controversy over the past six months. having someone's addresses can map out details of their connections to others. earlier we learned that the nsa collects metadata, records of calling information people make in the united states . if you marry that with the collection of e- mail address books, you can start to draw connections just beyond those phone numbers that ping around that also include e-mail addresses, instant messaging addresses, buddy lists, the people who are closest to you.

>> okay. we're talking about how many contact lists here?

>> millions. i mean, some of these slides indicated that the nsa could collect as many as 500,000 in a single day, a couple hundred thousand from yahoo! alone. so these --

>> do you have a breakdown, greg? americans , do we have an idea of what percentage is made up by american lists?

>> i don't think we have a precise percentage. we know some are americans . the government, the nsa, you know, emphasizes this collection happens overseas. this isn't them collecting on americans . we know that americans are nevertheless sort of mentioned or included in these databases because this data pings all around the world. even companies like google that are based in the united states rely on servers overseas for connections and americans obviously traveled. there were a fair number of americans caught up in this.

>> for everyone in a panic going, what? your paper quotes this. we're not interested in personal information about ordinary americans . so have they offered changes since this report came out so fewer americans get snared in the nets, so to speak?

>> i don't think they have proposed any significant changes to this program. all of these programs are now just beginning to be kind of reviewed legislatively. there are new -- there have been hearings in congress in the last couple of weeks, new proposals each week on legislation to rein in some of these programs and modify the transparency around them. i think we'll see some changes, but it's likely to be minimal.

>> okay. you also have a new article out about how a secret nsa unit is using some of this data. you've reportedly been able to use these e-mail messages s ts to zero in on high-level targets. can you explain that story?

>> sure, yeah. this was another thing we learned from the snowden documents. the drone program in pakistan, we often associate that or describe it as kind of an exclusively cia program, but it doesn't work for the cia without a lot of help from the nsa. these documents showed how the nsa's ability to intercept e-mails and to secretly take control even of laptop computers and other devices enables them to get the coordinates and specific information on some of these people that the cia is pursuing. so our story this week talked about this one example. the nsa intercepted an e-mail from his wife. it had enough information about where he lived that they were able to get coordinates on that house. days it later, he was dead from a drone strike.

>> is anybody opposing this? i mean, when you look at the effectiveness of getting a guy like him, are people really opposing what's happening with the nsa and gathering up this information?

>> well, no. that's a point we made in the story. there was some who read the story that wondered, well, what is the scandal here? we pointed out in the story, this is what the nsa says it does, that its energies and resources are devoted to protecting the country, stopping problems including terrorism. this is a very detailed example that sort of bolsters that case that the nsa has been making throughout this period after the snowden leaks began.

>> okay. greg miller , always a pleasure. thanks for joining us.