WASHINGTON  - The National Security Agency is gathering email and instant messenger contact lists from hundreds of millions of ordinary citizens worldwide, many of them Americans, The Washington Post reported late Monday. The US agency’s data collection program harvests the data from address books and “buddy lists”, the newspaper said, citing senior intelligence officials and top secret documents provided by the fugitive NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

During a single day last year, the NSA’s Special Source Operations branch collected 444,743 e-mail address books from Yahoo, 105,068 from Hotmail, 82,857 from Facebook, 33,697 from Gmail and 22,881 from unspecified other providers, the Post said, according to an internal NSA PowerPoint presentation.

The figures, described as a typical daily intake in the document, correspond to a rate of more than 250 million a year, according to the report, which was published on the newspaper’s website. The NSA declined to confirm the specific allegations in the Post report but defended its surveillance activities as legal and respectful of privacy rights. The agency has come under fire following revelations about vast efforts to collect data on Americans, but it has mostly acknowledged the accuracy of leaks from Snowden while seeking to play down their significance.

The Snowden affair has not only complicated diplomacy but embarrassed the Internet and telecom sector, with some companies accused of betraying their customers by cooperating with government spying.  Russia has granted Edward Snowden one year’s asylum but the United States wants him to be extradited to face espionage charges over his leaking of sensational details of US surveillance programmes at home and abroad.

Meanwhile, Brazil said Monday it will activate a secure email system next month to protect government communications from spying by the United States and other countries. President Dilma Rousseff announced the system’s implementation Sunday in response to press disclosures on Washington’s massive cyber spying on her country, as revealed by US intelligence leaker Edward Snowden.

“President Dilma Rousseff intends to make this the rule in the federal public administration,” Communications Minister Paulo Bernardo told reporters. He added that the Federal Data Processing Service (SERPRO) is in the process of creating a new version of the system, which will probably become operational in November. “We need more security on our messages to prevent possible espionage,” Rousseff said on Twitter Sunday.

SERPRO, which falls under Brazil’s finance ministry, develops secure systems for online tax returns and also creates new passports. “This is the first step toward extending the privacy and inviolability of official posts,” Rousseff said Sunday. Last month, Rousseff scrapped a US state visit after documents leaked by Snowden, a former US National Security Agency (NSA) intelligence contractor, revealed the extent of Washington’s spying on its Brazilian ally. She also condemned the US electronic espionage during her address to the UN General Assembly last month.

Via Snowden’s leaked documents, Brazilian daily Globo revealed that the NSA snooped on Rousseff’s communications with aides and on phone calls.

It also published that the United States had gathered email data on millions of Brazilians as well as on state-run energy giant Petrobras. Canada, a close US ally, also targeted Brazil’s mining and energy ministry for “economic and strategic motives,” according to Brasilia. Rousseff has vowed to introduce a measure at the United Nations to establish an “international civilian framework” to protect the privacy of Internet users. And she announced that her country will host an international conference on Internet governance in April.

Snowden, 30, who has sought refuge in Russia, is wanted by Washington after revealing details of the NSA’s massive worldwide espionage activities.