The US National Security Agency headquarters

It was in the mid 1980s that I read James Bamford’s inside look at the National Security Agency, The Puzzle Palace, which outlined how the NSA vacuums up huge amounts of electronic data. NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden has merely added to legend with his revelations on the collection of Internet data.

So it comes as no surprise that The Intercept reports from documents provided by Snowden that the agency has created a Google-like search engine called ICREACH that nearly two dozen U.S. government departments including the FBI can access for plowing through some 850 billion phone, email, location and internet chat data related to foreign intelligence.

Some of that data comes from Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC), the NSA’s counterpart here.

The search tool was designed to be the largest system for internally sharing secret surveillance records in the United States, capable of handling two to five billion new records every day, including more than 30 different kinds of metadata on emails, phone calls, faxes, internet chats, and text messages, as well as location information collected from cellphones,” says the story. “Metadata reveals information about a communication—such as the “to” and “from” parts of an email, and the time and date it was sent, or the phone numbers someone called and when they called—but not the content of the message or audio of the call.”

Some legal were surprised at the scale of the ICREACH system, telling the publication they were concerned U.S. law enforcement authorities might use it for domestic investigations that are not related to terrorism.

“To me, this is extremely troublesome,” Elizabeth Goitein, co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the New York University School of Law’s Brennan Center for Justice was quoted as saying. “The myth that metadata is just a bunch of numbers and is not as revealing as actual communications content was exploded long ago—this is a trove of incredibly sensitive information.”