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Latest NSA Scoop: Scoping Surveillance is Hard

Even when targeting foreign nationals, the NSA vacuums up a lot of data about Americans. According to a unique analysis by the Washington Post, almost half the data collected by the NSA (when targeting non-Americans) might contain details about Americans. This so-called “incidental collection” occurs, for example, when those in the U.S. communicate with those abroad.

The Post’s story is a rare glimpse into the NSA’s online data collection practices. Post reporters analyzed a large cache of surveillance data, supplied by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, that included more than 160,000 email and instant message conversations. To date, no government oversight body has analyzed a sample of the same magnitude.

The Post observed that:

  • The intercepted messages contained “discoveries of considerable intelligence value.” These included “fresh revelations about a secret overseas nuclear project” and “double-dealing by an ostensible ally.”
  • The NSA tried, with varying degrees of success, to protect the identities of Americans. NSA analysts routinely mask references to and details about to U.S. citizens or residents (more than 65,000 incidents of such masking appeared in the cache of 160,000 messages.) However, almost a thousand email address could be “strongly linked to U.S. citizens or U.S.residents.”
  • Intimate messages described as “useless” by NSA analysts were nonetheless retained. According to the Post, “stories of love and heartbreak, illicit sexual liaisons, mental-health crises, political and religious conversions, financial anxieties and disappointed hopes,” were cataloged and archived.

These observations will fuel the continuing NSA debate. The story comes on the heels of the federal Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board’s conclusion that the NSA’s foreign data collection program is largely constitutional, though incidental collection might “push the program close to the line….”

More immediately, the story reminds us that surveillance can implicate those not targeted, and that judiciously executing surveillance activities is hard. The NSA is a highly sophisticated actor with abundant resources. If it struggles to appropriately scope its data collection and protect individuals’ privacy, then so will smaller-scale efforts such as those housed at local police departments.

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