NSA Marina metadata tracking hoards online social lives of millions

The NSA is hoarding vast quantities of metadata about millions of internet users, piecing together records of their social networking use, locations, and other personal details, it's alleged, even if those individuals aren't in any way suspected of illegal activities. The year-long record of user data is gathered as part of a clandestine program called Marina, The Guardian reports, with leaked documentation about the system indicating that it uses browser tracking and more to build up automatic summaries of "pattern-of-life" activity and movement.

"The Marina metadata application tracks a user's browser experience, gathers contact information/content and develops summaries of target ... This tool offers the ability to export the data in a variety of formats, as well as create various charts to assist in pattern-of-life development" the leaked introductory guide to Marina claims.

"Of the more distinguishing features, Marina has the ability to look back on the last 365 days' worth of DNI metadata seen by the Sigint collection system, regardless whether or not it was tasked for collection" the document emphasizes.

Details on the tool follow claims over the weekend by The New York Times that the NSA was building complex models on US citizens through a combination of metadata crunching and adding in less-regulated third-party information sourced from private firms. Although programs like PRISM have been known about for some time, thanks to whistleblowing actions by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, Marina's more blanket approach to data gathering and storage comes as a surprise.

In fact, PRISM is believed to be just one of the sources of metadata which Marina can aggregate. Where PRISM requires internet companies to turn over legally-mandated information about users, Marina can also pull in data from tapped undersea internet cables, not to mention through the NSA's deals with telecoms firms.

As much of 90-percent of the world's online communications are said to cross the US and thus be a potential source of data collection.

Marina's strength for law-enforcement agencies and homeland security is in the breadth of its information. Since data is gathered and stored whether the user was deliberately targeted or incidentally, people who were not considered a potential threat initially but whom later circled into suspects could have previous movements analyzed even before official monitoring takes place.

Officially, the FISA Amendments Act ruling the NSA operates much of its data collection from – and which frees them from seeking individual warrants – requires that at least one party be a non-American and outside of the US during the period that the data is collected. However, while the agency is expected to "minimize" whatever information it collects on US citizens, it can nonetheless keep "inadvertently" gathered US communications if they're deemed to contain intelligence material, evidence that a crime has taken place, or if they are encrypted.

Exactly how much leeway that gives the NSA to funnel content into Marina is unclear, but the extent of the modeling technology is a factor above what many believed the agency had access to.