Documents from the Edward Snowden archive, published this morning by The Intercept, reveal a secret NSA search engine that allows nearly two dozen law enforcement agencies to have access to hundreds of billions of records obtained through electronic surveillance of the communications of Americans and foreigners who have not been accused of any wrongdoing. Ryan Gallagher, staff reporter for The Intercept, provides a detailed analysis of the “Google-like” interface called ICREACH and how it may enable domestic law enforcement agencies to secretly tap NSA surveillance data for investigations that are not related to terrorism. Gallagher’s story reveals that ICREACH was designed to provide access to more than 850 billion electronic records of emails, phone calls, chats, phone locations, text messages and faxes.

NSA Spy Agencies

Keith Alexander the architect behind ICREACH

Recently-retired NSA director General Keith Alexander was the architect behind ICREACH, and in 2006 he wrote in a secret NSA document that the search engine would “allow unprecedented volumes of communications metadata to be shared and analyzed,” opening up a “vast, rich source of information” for other agencies to exploit. Information shared through ICREACH can be used to track people’s movements, map out their networks, predict future activities and potentially reveal religious or political beliefs.

Legal experts told The Intercept that they were shocked to learn about the scale of ICREACH. If the FBI, DEA or other domestic agencies have used their access to ICREACH to secretly trigger investigations of Americans through “parallel construction” of their evidence trails, the true origin of their investigations can be hidden from defense lawyers and, on occasion, prosecutors and judges – preventing court challenges as to the legality of the evidence that triggered the investigations.

“To me, this is extremely troublesome,” said Elizabeth Goitein, co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. “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.”