NSA Collects Data ‘About’ Foreign Targets, Not Just Direct Communication

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Photo: Charles Dharapak

In response to Edward Snowden's leaks, the government has tried to calm Americans by declaring that when it comes to online communications, "only non-U.S. persons outside the U.S. are targeted." The rest of the world still found that information pretty unsettling, and now the New York Times reports that it's not exactly true for Americans anyway. The NSA is sifting through most e-mail and text communications in and out of the country, and their search isn't limited to Americans who deal directly with foreign targets. According to a document leaked by Snowden, the NSA is also looking for "communications about the target that are not to or from the target." If you mention a terrorist's e-mail address or phone number to a friend overseas, the NSA intends to find out.

The line was included in a list of rules about how the NSA can apply a 2008 law in which Congress approved warrantless eavesdropping, as long as the "target" was a foreigner abroad, and it was the only rule marked "top secret." The document was posted online in June, but the line was mostly overlooked at the time.

The Times reports that the NSA conducts surveillance on communications that cross the border by temporarily copying the data, then having a computer search for keywords that flag content for humans to examine. One senior intelligence officer argued that the process doesn't amount to bulk data collection, since the search process takes seconds and the data isn't stored. The official wouldn't comment on how much data is processed, but computer scientists said that due to the way the messages are transmitted, the government would have to collect and reconstruct nearly all information crossing the border to make sense of it.

Timothy Edgar, a former intelligence official in the Bush and Obama administrations, said there's also "an ambiguity in the law about what it means to ‘target’ someone." The government isn't allowed to target Americans, but the conversation is fair game as long as one of the participants is a noncitizen outside the U.S. Even if the agency is examining communication from the American, technically the foreigner is the target. And thus, the president feels more comfortable declaring, "We don't have domestic spying," on the Tonight Show.