21 Nov 2013

Why the US might be spying on you

In the modern world of email and social networking, your connections mean that you could be more closely linked to terror suspects than you thought – which means you might be a target for US spies.

Why the spies' eyes could be trained on your data (Getty)

(Graphic by Ciaran Hughes)

Many people have responded to the revelations about US spying and surveillance, revealed by whistleblower Edward Snowden, with a shrug.

“So what? I’m not a terrorist. They won’t be tracking me,” has been the response from much of the British public.

But new documents seen in a joint investigation by Channel 4 News and The Guardian show that this is not quite the case.

In fact, a 2007 memo shows that the UK government allowed the US to store and target any landline, mobile, fax, email and IP address linked to a suspected person. Whether this memo was ever acted upon or not is unclear – but the potential for mass surveillance, bringing in data from thousands, even millions of people, is.

Using “pattern of life” analysis, the US National Security Agency could target many people in their hunt for one suspect. In the past, data collected accidentally in this way was discarded. From 2007 – it no longer had to be.

It’s a small world

Even 20 years ago, being connected to someone meant something quite different to what it means today. Back then, to know someone meant knowing them in person, or at least having their phone number. As such, most people probably had smaller networks than they do today.

But now, most people have an email and phone contacts list of tens, even hundreds of people; and a Facebook network which is potentially much larger, particularly when friends of friends are taken into account.

So, if you email a terror suspect, and then separately email all of the contacts in your address book asking them to a party – theoretically, all of their data could be tracked. Or the Facebook surveillance net can spread much more widely, as the graphic above shows.

The graphic takes a simplistic approach – multiplying your friends by their friends and so on, without taking into account the fact that at least some “friends of friends” will be duplicates, who are connected to both you and your friend.

But the numbers are still huge even if this is taken into account. As James Ball, the Guardian journalist working on the story, explained to Channel 4 News: “The typical person has 190 Facebook friends. By the time you pull in their friends, and their friends too, you’re looking at a network of five million people. So to track just one person, you’ve ended up bringing in five million.”

So ultimately, what this boils down to is: they aren’t just watching the “bad guys” – they could be watching you.

Watch below: Paul Mason’s exclusive TV story showing how the Blair government let the US spy on Brits.