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Data Collection By N.S.A. Spy Programs Includes Mostly Ordinary People And Not Legal Targets

National Security Agency logo Based upon files released by former government contractor Edward Snowden, law-abiding people far outnumber the bad guys caught in dragnet surveillance programs by the National Security Agency (NSA). The Washington post reported:

"Ordinary Internet users, American and non-American alike, far outnumber legally targeted foreigners in the communications intercepted... from U.S. digital networks, according to a four-month investigation by The Washington Post. Nine of 10 account holders found in a large cache of intercepted conversations, which former NSA contractor Edward Snowden provided in full to The Post, were not the intended surveillance targets but were caught in a net the agency had cast for somebody else... Nearly half of the surveillance files, a strikingly high proportion, contained names, e-mail addresses or other details that the NSA marked as belonging to U.S. citizens or residents..."

The specific activity volume:

"In a June 26 “transparency report,” the Office of the Director of National Intelligence disclosed that 89,138 people were targets of last year’s collection under FISA Section 702. At the 9-to-1 ratio of incidental collection in Snowden’s sample, the office’s figure would correspond to nearly 900,000 accounts, targeted or not, under surveillance."

So, there's probably data collected about a million or more people. In its efforts to target the bad guys the NSA collected lots of data about everyone else. Now we learn that most -- 90 percent -- of that data collected isn't about the bad guys or people legally targeted.

What does this data collection contain? The Washington Post described it:

"Many other files, described as useless by the analysts but nonetheless retained, have a startlingly intimate, even voyeuristic quality. They tell stories of love and heartbreak, illicit sexual liaisons, mental-health crises, political and religious conversions, financial anxieties and disappointed hopes... medical records sent from one family member to another, résumés from job hunters and academic transcripts of schoolchildren. In one photo, a young girl in religious dress beams at a camera... Scores of pictures show infants and toddlers in bathtubs, on swings, sprawled on their backs and kissed by their mothers..."

That sounds like information the people involved probably don't want disclosed. To understand the nature of the data collected:

"The Post reviewed roughly 160,000 intercepted e-mail and instant-message conversations, some of them hundreds of pages long, and 7,900 documents taken from more than 11,000 online accounts."

This data collection highlights the failed oversight mechanisms within government:

"No government oversight body, including the Justice Department, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, intelligence committees in Congress or the president’s Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, has delved into a comparably large sample of what the NSA actually collects..."

This data collection highlights what the NSA shares with other agencies:

"The NSA treats all content intercepted incidentally from third parties as permissible to retain, store, search and distribute to its government customers. Raj De, the agency’s general counsel, has testified that the NSA does not generally attempt to remove irrelevant personal content, because it is difficult for one analyst to know what might become relevant to another."

This data collection highlights the rationale NSA analysts use to classify targets as foreign:

"The rationales they use to judge foreignness sometimes stretch legal rules or well-known technical facts to the breaking point.... colleagues and supervisors often remind the analysts that PRISM and Upstream collection have a “lower threshold for foreignness ‘standard of proof’ ” than a traditional surveillance warrant from a FISA judge... One analyst rests her claim that a target is foreign on the fact that his e-mails are written in a foreign language... Others are allowed to presume that anyone on the chat “buddy list” of a known foreign national is also foreign. In many other cases, analysts seek and obtain approval to treat an account as “foreign” if someone connects to it from a computer address that seems to be overseas..."

So, if you or I use a computer in an Internet cafe in another country -- say, Paris, France -- we are likely to be categorized by spy analysts as foreign. That strikes me as very lazy, sloppy, and highly inaccurate spy work. It makes me wonder why our elected officials in Congress that are charged with oversight haven't fought against this lazy, sloppy, and inaccurate classification method.

And, this inacccurate data collection is also wasteful:

"Apart from the fact that tens of millions of Americans live and travel overseas, additional millions use simple tools called proxies to redirect their data traffic around the world, for business or pleasure. World Cup fans this month have been using a browser extension called Hola to watch live-streamed games that are unavailable from their own countries. The same trick is routinely used by Americans who want to watch BBC video. The NSA also relies routinely on locations embedded in Yahoo tracking cookies, which are widely regarded by online advertisers as unreliable."

So, the NSA is wasting taxpayers' money by collecting a lot of irrelevant data about people not targeted. If that bothers you, I hope that it does. It bothers me, too.

That the NSA collects and archives this sensitive data about people not targeted (and innocent), it highlights the related and important question: how well does the NSA protect this sensitive data collected? Once again, I thank Edward Snowden for sharing this information so we U.S. citizens can have an informed conversation about our government's spy activities; and if we want this to continue, changed, and if so how.

What are your opinions of these latest surveillance revelations?


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