ICREACH NSA’s Google-like search engine

Christopher Sewerd In the News

Google and other popular search engines are without a doubt one of the cornerstone services of the internet. Imagining a world without Google is almost unbearable, being able to search for a specific website or specific information is the grease that allows the cogs of the internet to move freely. Imagine for a moment trying to find the specific information you require without a search engine.

Now with that thought, introduce the term “mass surveillance” in to the mix and how in recent years we have learnt that our governments, especially the US and UK are catching large amounts of data in huge fishing nets and storing it without reason. As agencies have said themselves, this is merely “hay” don’t forget, they are only looking for needles.

So how does one find needles? Just as you use Google or other search engines to find your required needles it make sense that when you have vast amounts of stored data you would require a similar sort of search engine and this is exactly what the NSA have created.

When you have swathes of data being stored indiscriminately it would be rather hard to pinpoint specifics without some form of search engine. The National Security Agency in the United States has created a system for this very purpose known as ICREACH.

ICREACH has been dubbed a “google like” search engine according to NSA reporting news site, The Intercept. A search engine that allows access to 850 billion records which include phone calls, emails, mobile locations, online chats and more.

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The Intercept was set up in a post-Snowden era with the sole intention of reporting on the classified files provided by Snowden himself. Created by two of the original reporters who met Edward Snowden initially, Glenn Greenwald and Laura Pointras, it has so far featured reports on documents provided by Snowden with a longer term goal of allowing reporting with editorial independence for their journalists.

What makes the ICREACH system unique in the whole plethora of details revealed in recent years is that it opens access to records of both foreigners and domestic Americans to various government agencies. So not only do the NSA have access to the information stored but other agencies such as the FBI, CIA, DEA and others can also make use of the search engine with 23 agencies in total being cited as having access to the system.

The majority of the internet enabled population will be well versed with search engines, but while we as mere members of the public search for cute fluffy cat videos, receipts for cookies and winning lottery numbers, the agencies with access to ICREACH have the ability to search for more sinister results. Areas of interest for agencies with access include tracking people’s movement, creating maps of associates, predicting future actions and in theory can reveal political and religious beliefs, all from the click of a button.

In documents seen by The Intercept, the project was hailed as a landmark moment for U.S. Government surveillance. In documents released it is noted that the project started with a basic concept due to the increasing need for communications metadata.

Metadata is data that describes other data, for instance in the case of ICREACH it would be details about the length of calls, who called who, location data etc. It would not contain actual communications information, i.e.; the contents of a phone call or what was said. Metadata has become the buzzword of recent years with much discussion over how intrusive it is into our lives and how it affects our privacy.

Michael Hayden

Michael Hayden

Although on the face of it, it may seem rather harmless that the goal of ICREACH was to answer the specification of, the increasing need for communications metadata, it was only as recently as early 2014 that former CIA and NSA director Michael Hayden was quoted as saying “We kill people based on metadata.” coupled with a quote from NSA General Counsel, Stewart Baker “metadata absolutely tells you everything about somebody’s life. If you have enough metadata, you don’t really need content.” which makes for scary reading.

While the system allows searching and manipulating of metadata and not content, it is a vast engine that is capable of storing two to five billion new records each day. When you combine that storage ability with the quotes we explored earlier, it starts to paint a very bleak picture and highlights the intrusiveness of the system.

The database itself, as we are led to believe by a US official who has experience with the system is not a single database storing information as it first appears but a search engine that is capable of searching many different databases. The system itself has received very little scrutiny due to its apparent targeting of foreign communications, however as is clear with this and other such systems, it is impossible to filter US data all of the time and will inevitably find its way in to the mass of “hay” that is the data store.

Although the system is aimed at foreign communications it begs the question as to why access is available to the majority of domestic agencies who no doubt when investigating sources will lead to crossed borders with many international investigations containing domestic aspects when cross border criminality is experienced.

The existence of ICREACH only furthers the debate on what is classed as mass surveillance and what is targeted surveillance. Without specific evidence to store such data it raises the question of if storing communications data on innocent civilians, be it American or other is morally correct.

As a non-US citizen such activity makes me extremely concerned that a foreign entity has the ability to store data on myself, someone of whom they have no jurisdictional rights over. Furthermore it is of grave concern to what my own government is doing without the added worry of foreign governments.