Newly released documents from the Edward Snowden archive, made public on 10 August, reveal that the NSA, in collaboration with the military-focused Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) intercepted communications from various non-profit organisations across the world, in efforts to gather "medical intelligence". The previously unseen top-secret documents also reveal that the initiative was launched in the early 2000's.

According to the documents, the scope of information surveilled by the NSA included that relating to outbreak of diseases, the ability of foreign nations to respond to biological, chemical and nuclear attacks, the proficiency of pharmaceutical companies abroad, medical research and advancements in medical technology and more, the Intercept reported.

The documents reveal that such information is gathered and used in efforts to protect US forces, identify facilities manufacturing bio-weapons, find chemical weapons programmes and study the process by which diseases spread, among others. The NSA specifically brought in an infectious disease expert from the DIA to help its NGO spying wing – the International Organisations Branch – to collect information on outbreaks. Among others, the topics looked into were "Sars in China, cholera in Liberia, and dysentery, polio, and cholera in Iraq".

"The timing of the integree's arrival, as it coincided with a worldwide Sars epidemic, could not have been better," read an article written by the NSA's "account manager" the DIA. "Efforts to develop related topics will inform and facilitate future endeavours to exploit medical intelligence in the International Organizations Branch," the article continued.

Medical research targeted in Pakistan and Afghanistan

According to the "black budget" published in 2012 and proposed for the 2013 fiscal year, the process of gathering medical intelligence has been a longstanding one. The documents also reveal a specific budget request made to target medical research centres in Pakistan and Afghanistan, in efforts to gain insight into "military and civilian medical capabilities". The budget request detailed the need for additional funds so that analysts can "support joint targeting and no-strike list selection for medical facilities".

Newly released documents from leaked Snowden data reveal that NSA spied on global medical non-profits
Other articles published on the NSA newsletter SIDtoday reveal the NSA's focus on amassing medical intelligence pertaining to combating possible weapons of mass destruction iStock

Smart medical devices

In June, NSA deputy director Richard Ledget said the agency was considering exploiting IoT (Internet of Things) in efforts to monitor biomedical devices, such as pacemakers, which then would allow them to surveil targets. This throws new light on how the agency goes about expanding intelligence gathering techniques.

Although both the NSA and the DIA refrained from commenting on the partnership, a spokesperson for the DIA confirmed that "from forecasting and tracking infectious disease outbreaks to assessing foreign health threats, medical intelligence is key to protecting our deployed forces from a wide range of threats across the globe".

Bio-weapons and warfare

Other articles published on the NSA newsletter SIDtoday reveal the NSA's focus on amassing medical intelligence pertaining to combating possible weapons of mass destruction (WMD). One particular article from 2003 discusses an NSA project to monitor evolution of biotechnology in foreign nations. "Can we ... determine the specific features that would distinguish a Bio Warfare Program from a benign civilian pharmaceutical production effort?" the article read, identifying a "suspect Iranian [biological warfare] facility" as a potential target for inspection.