9 of 10 online accounts intercepted by NSA are not intended surveillance target

New Snowden leak shows how Americans' electronic communications are gobbled up by the NSA.
  • Ms. Smith (Network World)
  • 07 July, 2014 22:44

Although NSA officials were not sure about what all documents Edward Snowden took with him, they've changed their tune a few times after some new leak proves their previous proclamations to be when former NSA Chief Keith Alexander admitted to lying about phone surveillance stopping 54 terror plots. Despite a year of NSA officials claiming that Edward Snowden had access to reports about NSA surveillance, but no access to actual surveillance intercepts, that ends up being lie too.

Snowden gave the Washington Post a sampling of actual intercepted communications; after months of reviewing about 160,000 intercepted emails and instant messages and 7,900 documents taken from over 11,000 online accounts, the Post said nine out of 10 account holders in the large cache of intercepted communications were not even surveillance targets. In fact, the collateral damage is astounding. The Post reported:

Nearly half of the surveillance files, a strikingly high proportion, contained names, e-mail addresses or other details that the NSA marked as belonging to U.S. citizens or residents. NSA analysts masked, or "minimized," more than 65,000 such references to protect Americans' privacy, but The Post found nearly 900 additional e-mail addresses, unmasked in the files, that could be strongly linked to U.S. citizens or U.S. residents.

The intercepted communications were collected from 2009 to 2012, during President Obama's first term; under the President, formerly a "constitutional law professor," the Post noted that the NSA's domestic collection program underwent a "period of exponential growth." Interestingly, a research paper released last week explained how the government can exploit legal and technical loopholes in order to conduct warrantless surveillance on Americans. One way is through Executive Order 12333, which would allow Americans' communications to be sucked up when their network traffic is routed overseas or their data is stored abroad.

So what might put Americans in the NSA's collection crosshairs? People on the chat "buddy list" of a foreign national are considered foreigners as well as people who write emails in a foreign language. Then there's the use of a proxy, which might be an IP address from a different country.

If a target entered an online chat room, the NSA collected the words and identities of every person who posted there, regardless of subject, as well as every person who simply 'lurked,' reading passively what other people wrote.

One analyst reported wrote, "1 target, 38 others on there," but she collected data on them all. Others made notes that the surveillance was not relevant, yet the NSA sometimes designates as "its target the Internet protocol, or IP, address of a computer server used by hundreds of people."

The NSA treats all content intercepted incidentally from third parties as permissible to retain, store, search and distribute to its government customers.

Of these 160,000 intercepted messages, only 10% were official targets. The Post added:

Many other files, described as useless by the analysts but nonetheless retained, have a startlingly intimate, even voyeuristic quality. They tell stories of love and heartbreak, illicit sexual liaisons, mental-health crises, political and religious conversions, financial anxieties and disappointed hopes. The daily lives of more than 10,000 account holders who were not targeted are catalogued and recorded nevertheless.

According to the Post:

If Snowden's sample is representative, the population under scrutiny in the PRISM and Upstream programs is far larger than the government has suggested. In a June 26 "transparency report," the Office of the Director of National Intelligence disclosed that 89,138 people were targets of last year's collection under FISA Section 702. At the 9-to-1 ratio of incidental collection in Snowden's sample, the office's figure would correspond to nearly 900,000 accounts, targeted or not, under surveillance.

These revelations come on the heels of news that NSA "deep packet inspection" rules target people who search for articles about Tails and those who use Tor. The agency also allegedly considers the Linux Journal to be an "extremist forum;" its readers get flagged for extra surveillance. The government's ever-changing "you might be a terrorist if" lists are part of the reason it's so dangerous to have our communications collected and stored. Something that is not "suspicious" or illegal today might well be flagged as such in the future.