NSA-Intercepted Data Show Ordinary Civilians Far Outnumber Foreign Targets

Snowden Call
REUTERS/Vincent Kessler

The Washington Post revealed in an extensive report that the National Security Agency (NSA) intercepts communications from Internet users far more than it does legal foreign targets. The conversations reviewed in the report span over 160,000 emails and instant messages given to the Post by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. The four-month investigation found that a striking number of civilians—nine out of 10 email account holders within the cached conversations, many of them Americans—had their everyday communications intercepted.

The report estimates that roughly 900,000 people had their information stored and saved to NSA databases between 2009 and 2012, contradicting the declassified transparency report by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence on June 27, 2014. The transparency report—which contains surveillance orders, business records and national security records—claims that a mere 89,138 targets were affected under Section 702 of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (FISA), the law permitting the mass collection of emails and phone calls based on probable cause.

The NSA defines a target as a group, organization, foreign presence or person that "possesses or is likely to communicate foreign intelligence information that the U.S. government is authorized to acquire." While the definition of target is loose, the NSA is only legally allowed to snoop on foreign nationals outside the United States. The Post says a small fraction of the communication interceptions were valuable to ongoing investigations, including information about double-dealing allies, military calamities and the identities of intruders into U.S. computer networks and an overseas nuclear project.

However, the Post's investigation charges that NSA analysts retained "startlingly intimate, even voyeuristic" files unrelated to ongoing intelligence investigations. These records include "stories of love and heartbreak, illicit sexual liaisons, mental-health crises, political and religious conversions, financial anxieties and disappointed hopes." Apparently if you instant message in a foreign language or just send photos to another person, the NSA might be gathering your personal files and storing them.

In June 2013 Snowden leaked documents exposing PRISM, the NSA's mass data-mining program. Since then, the NSA has vehemently denied allegations that it is arbitrarily snooping on Americans. According to The New York Times, NSA administration officials claim they filter out domestic communications that possess no value to intelligence investigations. In an interview with the Times on Sunday, Robert Litt, the general counsel to the director of national intelligence, said: "These reports simply discuss the kind of incidental interception of communications that we have always said takes place under Section 702 [of FISA]."

Despite that denial, the Post's report confirms the widely held suspicion that someone, somewhere, is always watching as you take a screenshot of that photo of a cat.