The Guardian UK newspaper reported on Tuesday that the National Security Agency (NSA) confirmed it used a "back door" in surveillance law to perform warrantless searches of phone calls and e-mail messages. The confirmation came in a letter to Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat on the intelligence committee, from the director of national intelligence, James Clapper.
The Guardian obtained a copy of the letter, which read in part:
"There have been queries, using US person identifiers, of communications lawfully acquired to obtain foreign intelligence targeting non-US persons reasonably believed to be located outside the United States...”
What is this "back door" in surveillance law? The newspaper reported:
"The NSA's collection programs are ostensibly targeted at foreigners, but in August the Guardian revealed a secret rule change allowing NSA analysts to search for Americans' details within the databases... The legal authority to perform the searches, revealed in top-secret NSA documents provided to the Guardian by Edward Snowden, was denounced by Wyden as a “backdoor search loophole.” "
"The intelligence data is being gathered under Section 702 of the of the Fisa Amendments Act (FAA), which gives the NSA authority to target without warrant the communications of foreign targets, who must be non-US citizens and outside the US at the point of collection. The communications of Americans in direct contact with foreign targets can also be collected without a warrant, and the intelligence agencies acknowledge that purely domestic communications can also be inadvertently swept into its databases. That process is known as "incidental collection" in surveillance parlance."
So, purely domestic communications by U.S. citizens, vacuumed up via "incidental collection," has been searched by the NSA. The NSA has not disclosed the number of citizens affected, the number of records collected via the back door loophole, nor the number of records searched.
This extensive government surveillance is having an unexpected impact. A recent Harris survey found that 47 percent of adults have changed their online habits due to NSA spying. 26 percent said that they do less online banking or less online shopping. Among the 18-34 age group, 33 percent said they do less online banking or less online shopping. And, 29 percent of women do less online shopping. These statistics signal a new and growing trend by consumers to use caution about what they say, do, and post online.
In response to the news reports about the NSA's confirmation, U.S. Senator from Connecticut Richard Blumenthal said Tuesday in a statement:
"Loopholes in the law allowing warrantless, backdoor searches of Americans’ calls and communications are an outrage that cannot be tolerated. This disclosure is further evidence that the intelligence community will spy on Americans if it believes it has the legal authority to do so, and therefore it must be reined in by stronger protections and oversight... I urge immediate action by the President and Congress. Americans deserve to know their communications are private, and that our intelligence community is not exploiting loopholes in violation of the spirit of the law.”
I agree. When reading any statements by the NSA, I have found it wise to parse every word mentioned. Nothing is said accidentally. It is troubling that more politicians, especially those in the (supposed) oversight committees in Congress, are not saying more about the NSA's latest confirmation.
What is your opinion of the revelations from the Guardian UK's report? Have the NSA spy revelations changed your online habits? If so, why and how?