Meet the Boundless Informant, the NSA's Data Overview Tool

Connor Simpson

Everyone, meet the National Security Agency's Boundless Informant. It's the pretty tool designed to help staffers get an overview of the data collected by the agency and which comes complete with its own Frequently Asked Questions guide. The Guardian's Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill unleashed another scoop about the NSA's big data troves Saturday afternoon, introducing the world to the agency's handy system for easily "recording and analysing where its intelligence comes from." The program tells staffers how much data was collected in each country. There's a color-coded map showing where most data comes from, with green signifying a relatively low amount of data collected in that country while red means a high amount of data. 

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Boundless Informant also shows how much data is collected. For example, the Guardian reports the tool "collected 97bn pieces of intelligence from computer networks worldwide." Beyond that, we don't know much about where or how BI fits into the greater data collection infrastructure that includes PRISM and the like. 

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It is, as the FAQ explains, merely a prototype. What's unclear is whether it includes data collected by PRISM — the government program that allegedly works with major Internet and telecom companies to collect (some) U.S. citizen data. Tech companies never gave PRISM "direct access" to their servers, as was originally reported, but some — Facebook and Google, at least — set up secure drop-boxes for the NSA to collect information on users when demanded via a top-secret FISA request. Boundless Informant appears not to include data collected from FISA requests, the FAQ explains.

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But the program's existence shows enough people had to have access to this information, even if it doesn't reveal anything other than quantity and origin, that the NSA built a tool for staffers to use. The alternative would presumably be sending massive reports, filled with complicated tables of data — or numerous individual requests to data analysts.

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James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, also released this information fact scheet about PRISM and the NSA's data collection efforts: 

DNI statement about PRISM