The U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) is nine times more likely to read an email from the average American than those belonging to official terrorist suspects, according to an investigative report released late Saturday by The Washington Post. Only 10 percent of the emails and instant messages it collects come from official foreign targets thanks to loose guidelines that allow analysts to capture communications from anyone involved in a person’s contact list, chat room or email chain.
The report analyzed 160,000 intercepted emails and instant message conversations from more than 11,000 accounts leaked by former NSA contractor turned whistleblower Edward Snowden. The Washington Post found that nine in 10 involved ordinary citizens that weren’t the supposed to be part of the agency’s surveillance investigations. They simply got caught in the web because they were contacts on a target’s list or because they happened to enter the same chat room as a suspect. Analysts could also collect online chats and emails that weren’t written in English as reason enough to believe the person wasn’t American and a potential suspect.
The emails and instant messages chronicled the daily life of more 10,000 people and contained intimate details including sexual affairs, mental health issues, money woes and philosophical debates. Also, nearly half of the NSA’s surveillance documents obtained by The Washington Post contained email addresses, names and other identifying information the NSA linked to American citizens or residents.
Other than revealing deeply personal information from private citizens, the surveillance files revealed some valuable intelligence, including “fresh revelations about a secret overseas nuclear project, double-dealing by an ostensible ally, a military calamity that befell an unfriendly power, and the identities of aggressive intruders into U.S. computer networks,” The Washington Post reported.
But overall, the NSA’s bulk data collection has not yielded much valuable information. Earlier this year, a presidential panel found the NSA’s mass phone surveillance program that collected telephone data from calls and text messages was not nearly successful enough to justify the collection of innocent people’s information. An independent study from the New America Foundation also concluded that mass surveillance “has had no discernible impact on preventing acts of terrorism.”
As revealed in Snowden’s leaks last year, the agency routinely used backdoor Web access from tech and Internet companies, such as Google, Microsoft and Facebook to collect and monitor emails and other Web communications through the PRISM program. The NSA also exploited the Heartbleed bug — a hole in thousands of websites’ encryption fabric that exposed identifying personal and financial information — before it was publicly discovered earlier this year. And despite ending the NSA’s current mass surveillance program, the Obama Administration and Congress have struggled to strike a balance between collecting information for national security and protecting individual liberties.
A pending version of a retouched USA Freedom Act would give the NSA leeway to collect bulk amounts of telephone and Internet data with loose restrictions. If passed, the agency theoretically would still be able to collect all emails from a single provider such as Gmail or Apple.