A new investigation into the National Security Agency’s bulk surveillance programs reveals the vast majority of communications intercepted by the agency do not belong to targets, and a large portion are connected to Americans.
According to a weekend Washington Post report, of the tens-of-thousands of communications swept up by the signals intelligence agency including private emails, instant messages, documents and photos, only 10 percent belong to targets.
The internet communications caught in the dragnet — a large portion of which belong to U.S. citizens — are retained in agency servers despite their irrelevant designations. Users are reportedly loosely if at all connected with actual targets, and half of all intercepts included information connected to Americans.
“None of the hits that were received were relevant,” two Navy cryptologic technicians wrote in a summary of “nonproductive surveillance.”
“No additional information,” another civilian analyst wrote.
Conclusions were drawn from an analysis of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act documents collected by NSA through bulk surveillance programs like PRISM and Upstream between 2009 and 2012, and were leaked to the Post by former agency contractor Edward Snowden.
Post reporters spent months going through some 160,000 emails and instant messages along with 7,900 documents in the first in-depth published analysis of a bulk store of intercepts — data NSA has continually asserted Snowden had no access to.
The report did reveal attempts by the agency to “minimize” 65,000 pieces of data, including email addresses, that could be connected to U.S. persons, though 900 likely connected pieces still bypassed filtration. Under U.S. law the agency is required to obscure data belonging to American citizens without reasonable connections to targets.
Exhibited behavior used to label intercepts as foreign were, however, not very discriminating at all. For example, analysts would flag an email as foreign — opening the sender up to a much broader degree of warrantless scrutiny — simply for being written in a language other than English. Users with international IP addresses or names appearing in the instant message connections lists of non-U.S. citizens were also assumed to be non-U.S. citizens.
In a credit to the agency the Post also reported instances of gathered intelligence directly assisting in the apprehension of terrorist suspects, though the paper declined to reveal specific examples to avoid interfering with current investigation efforts.