Oct 20, 2018 | Updated: 04:34 PM EDT

This One Snowden Leak Shows Why You Should Care About Every NSA Revelation

Jul 09, 2014 02:27 AM EDT

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Over the weekend, new details about the NSA were published, and they show why every previous NSA revelation leaked by Edward Snowden is relevant and important to everyone.

The day after Independence Day -- when Americans collectively celebrate the centuries-old declaration that we would no longer allow an oppressive government to intrude on our affairs from afar -- The Washington Post published an exclusive exposé about the National Security Agency's Internet-based communications interception program, based on a trove of NSA-intercepted conversations provided by ex-NSA contractor turned leaker Edward Snowden and a four-month Post investigation.

NSA Collections: Startlingly Intimate Details of Everyday Lives

Even for a new NSA revelation, approximately a year after the veritable avalanche of stories based on Snowden-leaked top-secret documents began, this one is startling.

"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," The Washington Post wrote.

"Many of them were Americans. Nearly half of the surveillance files, a strikingly high proportion, contained names, email addresses or other details that the NSA marked as belonging to U.S. citizens or residents."

In many of the files, details were concealed that referenced Americans to protect their privacy, but the investigation still found hundreds of "unmasked" references that could be "strongly linked" to U.S. citizens, according to the report. Many digital dossiers and details were described as useless by analysts but were retained in the NSA's trove despite that fact.

Some of the files Snowden provided reportedly contained incredibly intimate content, including, as The Post described it, "stories of love and heartbreak, illicit sexual liaisons, mental-health crises, political and religious conversions, financial anxieties and disappointed hopes" -- basically the content of the private lives of thousands who were never designated by the NSA as official "targets" but whose communications were intercepted and stored, nonetheless.

"Scores of pictures show infants and toddlers in bathtubs, on swings, sprawled on their backs and kissed by their mothers," wrote The Post, describing some of the photos contained in the un-targeted 90 percent of the 160,000 communications and 7,9000 documents that the NSA tapped from more than 11,000 online accounts during a time period from 2009 to 2012. "In some photos, men show off their physiques. In others, women model lingerie, leaning suggestively into a webcam or striking risqué poses in shorts and bikini tops."

"Incidental Collection" and NSA's Broad Justifications for Targeting

The most recent revelation draws attention to the fact that no government oversight organization, including the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court or any Congressional intelligence oversight committees, have looked into the NSA's off-target collection and information retention. According to regulations, the NSA is only allowed to target non-U.S. citizens overseas without a warrant from a FISA court, based on probable cause.

But such non-target collection, or "incidental collection," appears to be the norm, according to the exposé, as the NSA routinely collects far more than a target's communications. The Post described an online chat room conversation, for example, which included a targeted individual, along with the words and identities of every other person writing in that venue -- and even every single person that was only connected and passively reading the chat. "One target, 38 others on there," wrote one analyst, while collecting data on all 39.

Even the NSA's official "targeting" of individuals is being called into question by the Washington Post report. In the leaked documents, supervisors often reminded analysts that NSA targeted spying has a "lower threshold" for the "foreignness 'standard of proof'" than FISA court warrants require. Rather than probable cause, only a "reasonable belief" that the target is foreign is required.

This leads to documented cases of NSA analysts stretching those rules beyond the bounds of what previous revelations and responses from the NSA have depicted as fixed limits on spying.

One analyst, for example, reportedly claimed a target was foreign -- and therefore worth surveilling without even a secret FISA court warrant -- based on the fact that the subject's emails were written in a foreign language.

Do you have a hip abuela who knows how to email? She could be spied on by the government based on this justification. And your communications to her could get caught up in the dragnet as well, since other analysts were able to mark everyone on a foreign national's chat buddy list as a presumed foreign individual as well.

Another example reportedly showed an analyst successfully obtaining permission to designate an account as foreign because of an incoming IP connection coming from an overseas address. "The best foreignness explanations have the selector being accessed via a foreign IP address," an NSA supervisor said in one of the leaked documents.

Have you ever chatted with an overseas friend or relative? Have you ever used a proxy browser extension to stream the Olympics or World Cup games being broadcast in other countries? Then you could technically qualify as a target for NSA surveillance.

NSA Collection and Retention: A Messier Picture Than "1984"

Despite the broad sweep of data from ordinary people collected by the NSA's online surveillance programs, the overall circumstances surrounding the agency's collection and retention of innocents' information isn't as clear cut as a paranoid "1984"-type "they're the bad guys" standpoint allows -- despite the fact that the comments sections of articles like this are likely to fill up with only the two most extreme "for/against" opinions on the NSA.

That's because, along with the trove of incidentally collected data, Washington Post also uncovered regular attempts by the agency to carefully "minimize" or mask the identities of U.S. citizens, along with nationals of the other "Five Eyes" surveillance allies, the U.K., Australia, Canada and New Zealand. The Post counted more than 65,000 attempts to mask the identities of U.S. citizens referenced in collected documents.

But some attempts at "minimization" were laughable, including the use of a minimization term on an early 2009 file, "minimized U.S. president-elect." Following that "anonymous" individual's inauguration, the term "minimized U.S. president" began to appear in NSA collected records.

Another remaining question that muddies the picture of a completely out-of-control spy agency has to do with the trove of documents Snowden provided to The Washington Post. Is the cache of documents -- ostensibly showing that nine out of 10 accounts the NSA spies on and retains for at least a year are untargeted and often U.S. citizens -- actually representative of the NSA's full collection?

One could see an obvious motive for Snowden to weigh the scales in favor of generating public outrage, but it's not easy to tell because even the NSA's recent, first-ever "transparency report" doesn't provide even a broad estimate of the number of U.S. citizens' data swept up in surveillance and then carefully "masked."

And the NSA's public track record for accuracy (or honesty) regarding Snowden's files is unreliable, anyway -- the agency and other government officials publicly denied even the possibility that Snowden could have gained access to the data exposed in the recent Washington Post report.

But if Snowden's cache is representative, then the recent figures released by the NSA -- showing nearly 90,000 official targets of surveillance in 2013 under the agency's warrantless Internet collection programs, which are authorized by a 2008 congressional amendment to FISA (Section 702) -- indicate that it's possible that as many as 900,000 untargeted people, many of them Americans, were swept up in the dragnet last year.

Make sure to check out the full exposé at The Washington Post

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