Over 1,000 data analysts at 23 U.S. governmental agencies, including the DEA, FBI, and CIA, were given access to ICREACH — a Google-like search engine populated with hundreds of millions of records detailing e-mails, phone calls, instant messages, and phone geo-location.
The search engine, described by Edward Snowden in documents leaked to “The Intercept,” provided deep meta data on both foreigners and American citizens to law enforcement. Many of those surveilled had not been accused of any illegal activity.
Up until now, the exact mechanisms used by the NSA to share the massive amounts of data it has collected were somewhat unclear, as were the number of agencies it was sharing information with. More search portal than repository, ICREACH pulls on information stored in a number of different databases created by programs greenlit under Executive Order 12333 — a Reagan-issued order vastly expanding the data-collection powers of the American intelligence community.
Described as a “one-stop shopping tool” by the NSA, ICREACH generates a portrait of communication patterns associated with a particular piece of information, like a phone number or e-mail address attached to a person. Although ICREACH does not have direct access to the content of the conversations it’s searching, information analysts are able to piece together fairly descriptive maps that detail who was talking to who and when communication took place.
Perhaps the most troubling thing about ICREACH, though, is the potential it has to be abused by law enforcement agencies that have access to it. In 2013, Reuters reported on the DEA’s widespread promotion of “parallel construction” — a process in which one organization leaks information to another, and prompts the second organization to lie about where the initial tip came from. DEA-assisted parallel construction was explicitly mentioned in an instructional IRS manuals dated 2005 and 2006 before being removed in 2007