The web of NSA surveillance that has slowly been uncovered over the past few months just grew a little bigger today thanks to a New York Times report explaining the finer points of the agency’s data gathering practices. The NSA has publicly admitted to monitoring the phone calls and emails of individuals within U.S. borders who are communicating with so-called “targets” abroad – but details in leaked documents indicate that the agency also monitors the communication of people who may not talk directly to targets, but mention their names or information associated with them. The Times explains how it began and how it works:
Hints of the surveillance appeared in a set of rules, leaked by Mr. Snowden, for how the N.S.A. may carry out the 2008 FISA law [which approves warrantless domestic surveillance if a target is involved]. One paragraph mentions that the agency “seeks to acquire communications about the target that are not to or from the target.” The pages were posted online by the newspaper The Guardian on June 20, but the telltale paragraph, the only rule marked “Top Secret” amid 18 pages of restrictions, went largely overlooked amid other disclosures.
To conduct the surveillance, the N.S.A. is temporarily copying and then sifting through the contents of what is apparently most e-mails and other text-based communications that cross the border. The senior intelligence official, who, like other former and current government officials, spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic, said the N.S.A. makes a “clone of selected communication links” to gather the communications, but declined to specify details, like the volume of the data that passes through them.
This conduct contradicts past NSA statements, which claim that the agency never conducts warrantless spying domestically—as recently as June, an NSA official testified to Congress, “We do not target the content of U.S. person communications without a specific warrant anywhere on the earth.”
The NSA officials cited by the Times were—big surprise—on the defensive. An anonymous source said that the mechanisms which determine if someone is referring to a target are “very precise” and designed to “minimize the number of innocent American communications that were flagged by the program.” Stewart Baker, a former NSA lawyer, told the Times that this type of surveillance could identify a terrorist who might use a different phone number – mentioned by another person – on the day of an attack. The ACLU flagged these details back in June and has harshly condemned what they call “dragnet” spying.