The National Security Agency, known as NSA in polite terms, has constructed an information-sharing database on the web called ICReach.
The search engine is accessible to intelligence community analysts from U.S. government agencies. They have access to more than 850 billion metadata records of private communications of people around the world.
The information is available to about two dozen agencies, according to The Intercept, which was the first to report the existence of ICReach. The number of analysts with access totals about 1,000. Agencies tapping the database include DEA, FBI, CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency. These agencies have had access to ICReach since 2010, and a planning document from 2007 details the core membership status of the agencies.
ICReach can be used to track people's movements and determine the names of their associates.
As a result of The Intercept's leak and a subsequent release of corroborative documents to the website by Edward Snowden, leaker-in-chief, NSA has gone public with the information.
The purpose of ICReach is to improve communications and the ability of the NSA to "collect, process and store vast amounts of communications metadata related to worldwide intelligence targets."
ICReach does not seem to be directly connected to the large NSA database already revealed by The Guardian that stores phone call metadata using Section 215 of the Patriot Act as its justification. That database is for internal NSA use only, in terrorism-related investigations.
Apparently, ICReach can be searched by anyone with government clearance for "foreign intelligence." Those who have seen the data say that it does seem to center around non-U.S. communications. Although given ICReach's multiple agency reach, it should be expected that there are many Americans to be found in the search results.
In a statement to The Intercept, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said the system shares data gathered by programs authorized under Executive Order 12333, a Reagan-era presidential directive.
Depending on who you believe, metadata included in ICReach contains the date, time and duration of calls, the number of the caller and the destination but not the content of the communication or the phone call itself. When there is a mobile phone involved, metadata also includes the uniquely identifiable IMEI number of the handset.
An expanded definition of metadata, as provided by NSA, includes information about the cellular network and base station used. Inmarsat satellite calls also include latitude and longitude data; Internet messages include email addresses and instant messages reveal chat handles.