This undated photo provided by the National Security Agency (NSA) shows its headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland. The NSA has been secretly collecting the phone call records of millions of Americans, using data provided by telecom firms AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth, the newspaper USA Today reported on May 11, 2006. (Photo by NSA via Getty Images)
The National Security Agency has been collecting contacts from people's personal email address books and instant messaging accounts in an effort to detect relationships that might be crucial to government security, the Washington Post is reporting.
The agency is collecting the data from overseas points and many of the contacts belong to Americans, the Post reports.
The Post bases its report on word from senior intelligence officials and top secret documents, including a Microsoft PowerPoint presentation, provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
The majority of the contacts harvested come from Yahoo and Hotmail accounts, but others also come from Facebook, Google and unspecified other providers, the Post reports. The contacts amount to a sizeable portion of the world's email and instant messaging accounts, according to the news organization.
"You need the haystack to find the needle," the Post quotes Gen. Keith B. Alexander, NSA director, as saying in defense of the bulk collection.
No one from public affairs was available to discuss the allegations at National Security Agency headquarters in Fort Meade, Md., Monday evening.
Senior intelligence officials say such collection would be illegal if done from facilities in the United States, according to the news organization. The NSA, however, has avoided that error by intercepting contact lists from points "all over the world," one anonymous official tells the Post.
Large technology companies use data centers around the world to ease the loads on their servers in the United States, the Post reports.
A Google spokesman told USA TODAY the Internet company had not heard of the email/instant messaging program.
"We have neither knowledge of nor participation in this mass collection of webmail addresses or chat lists by the government," the company said in a statement emailed to USA TODAY.
A Microsoft spokesman said the company does not provide the government with such data and would have "significant concerns" if the allegations are true.
A Facebook spokesman said the company did not know of or assist with the alleged collection of contacts.
A Yahoo spokeswoman told the Post in response to a query about the alleged collections that the company would begin encrypting all email connections in January.
Contributing: Alistair Barr in San Francisco