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Paul Merrell

Court gave NSA broad leeway in surveillance, documents show - The Washington Post - 0 views

  • Virtually no foreign government is off-limits for the National Security Agency, which has been authorized to intercept information “concerning” all but four countries, according to top-secret documents. The United States has long had broad no-spying arrangements with those four countries — Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand — in a group known collectively with the United States as the Five Eyes. But a classified 2010 legal certification and other documents indicate the NSA has been given a far more elastic authority than previously known, one that allows it to intercept through U.S. companies not just the communications of its overseas targets but any communications about its targets as well.
  • The certification — approved by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and included among a set of documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden — lists 193 countries that would be of valid interest for U.S. intelligence. The certification also permitted the agency to gather intelligence about entities including the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the European Union and the International Atomic Energy Agency. The NSA is not necessarily targeting all the countries or organizations identified in the certification, the affidavits and an accompanying exhibit; it has only been given authority to do so. Still, the privacy implications are far-reaching, civil liberties advocates say, because of the wide spectrum of people who might be engaged in communication about foreign governments and entities and whose communications might be of interest to the United States.
  • That language could allow for surveillance of academics, journalists and human rights researchers. A Swiss academic who has information on the German government’s position in the run-up to an international trade negotiation, for instance, could be targeted if the government has determined there is a foreign-intelligence need for that information. If a U.S. college professor e-mails the Swiss professor’s e-mail address or phone number to a colleague, the American’s e-mail could be collected as well, under the program’s court-approved rules
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  • On Friday, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released a transparency report stating that in 2013 the government targeted nearly 90,000 foreign individuals or organizations for foreign surveillance under the program. Some tech-industry lawyers say the number is relatively low, considering that several billion people use U.S. e-mail services.
  • Still, some lawmakers are concerned that the potential for intrusions on Americans’ privacy has grown under the 2008 law because the government is intercepting not just communications of its targets but communications about its targets as well. The expansiveness of the foreign-powers certification increases that concern.
  • In a 2011 FISA court opinion, a judge using an NSA-provided sample estimated that the agency could be collecting as many as 46,000 wholly domestic e-mails a year that mentioned a particular target’s e-mail address or phone number, in what is referred to as “about” collection. “When Congress passed Section 702 back in 2008, most members of Congress had no idea that the government was collecting Americans’ communications simply because they contained a particular individual’s contact information,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who has co-sponsored ­legislation to narrow “about” collection authority, said in an e-mail to The Washington Post. “If ‘about the target’ collection were limited to genuine national security threats, there would be very little privacy impact. In fact, this collection is much broader than that, and it is scooping up huge amounts of Americans’ wholly domestic communications.”
  • The only reason the court has oversight of the NSA program is that Congress in 2008 gave the government a new authority to gather intelligence from U.S. companies that own the Internet cables running through the United States, former officials noted. Edgar, the former privacy officer at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, said ultimately he believes the authority should be narrowed. “There are valid privacy concerns with leaving these collection decisions entirely in the executive branch,” he said. “There shouldn’t be broad collection, using this authority, of foreign government information without any meaningful judicial role that defines the limits of what can be collected.”
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