POSTED BY Laura Sousa

Social graphs – representations of the interconnection of relationships in an online social network – define and link our social, professional, and family connections on social media.  They help us build relationships with others, see with whom our friends are connecting, and even increase our own interest base and social community.  They are one of the main features that helped the popularity of sites such as Facebook and Twitter to skyrocket.

But can social graphs provide a deeper informational (and perhaps intrusive) purpose than once thought?  According to the National Security Agency (hereinafter NSA), information gathered from telephone and email correspondences, travel logs, IP addresses, voter registration records, tax, insurance, and bank information, GPS location data, and social media profiles has helped them “rapidly discover and correlate complex relationships and patterns across diverse data sources on a massive scale.”[1]  While information amassed from social graphs was originally intended by the NSA back in 2010 to “discover and track connections between foreign intelligence targets and those in the United States,” insight into the lives of innocent Americans has allowed the government to identify millions of individuals’ friends, colleagues, location at a particular point in time, religious and political affiliations, and even access medical records.

Although an NSA spokesperson reported that “all data queries [issued by the NSA] must include a foreign intelligence justification,” a recent policy change at the agency has allowed NSA analysis to create social graphs from communications data without having to check the foreignness of every phone number or email address that they use.  Furthermore, because many NSA operations are known only to its employees, the general public is rarely privy to the uses to which its personal information is put.  Experts posit that NSA analysts are capable of exploiting the amassed information organized within social graphs to create a detailed and thorough profile of an individual that is much more comprehensive than it would have been without the use of graphs.

While NSA analysts are still required to obtain a warrant to specifically target a US citizen for actual eavesdropping, they are nevertheless entitled to trace any individual as long as they cite some foreign intelligence initiative.  Possible justifications include monitoring ties to terrorism, weapon or drug trading, or even political or business communications.  In 2011, the NSA’s database was receiving and analyzing over 1.1 billion cellphone records daily, and recent budget documents suggest that new repositories may soon be created that allow upwards of 20 billion records to be amassed daily.  These records could then be made available to the NSA within one hour for analysis.

NSA agents have refused to specify how many US citizens have been traced as part of the foreign security effort.  When questioned about the violation of privacy such operations present, a NSA spokesperson pointed to a 1979 Supreme Court ruling in Smith v. Maryland[2] in which the court held that Americans have no expectation of privacy regarding the numbers they call.  Despite critiques that this ruling is outdated and irrelevant, the NSA has continued to “unlock as many secrets about individuals as possible” while creating portraits that include intimate and sensitive details of American’s private lives.  The NSA continues to deny abuse of this practice, but many fear – perhaps rightfully so – that the NSA’s objectives of counterterrorism, counterproliferation, and cybersecurity merely open a Pandora’s Box that allows the government to invade the sense of security and privacy of US citizens.


[1] See James Risen and Laura Poitras, “N.S.A. Gathers Data on Social Connections of U.S. Citizens”, September 28, 2013, New York Times.

[2] See Smith v. Maryland, 439 US 1130 (1979).

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