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Ear to the Ground

Demonstrated: NSA Spies More on Ordinary Users Than Legal Targets

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Posted on Jul 6, 2014

Photo by Ross Harmes (CC BY 2.0)

A four-month investigation by The Washington Post of a large cache of intercepted conversations provided by NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden revealed that ordinary Internet users, both Americans and non-Americans, “far outnumber legally targeted foreigners in the communications intercepted by the National Security Agency from U.S. digital networks.”

The Post reports:

Nine of 10 account holders found in a large cache of intercepted conversations, which former NSA contractor Edward Snowden provided in full to The Post, were not the intended surveillance targets but were caught in a net the agency had cast for somebody else.

Many of them were Americans. 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 surveillance files highlight a policy dilemma that has been aired only abstractly in public. There are discoveries of considerable intelligence value in the intercepted messages — and collateral harm to privacy on a scale that the Obama administration has not been willing to address.

… 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.

The Post says it reviewed roughly 160,000 captured e-mail and instant-message conversations, “some of them hundreds of pages long, and 7,900 documents taken from more than 11,000 online accounts.”

Read more here.

—Posted by Alexander Reed Kelly.

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