Report: Small Percentage of NSA-Collected Data Relates to Actual Targets

A new story has emerged based on more leaked documents from the cache of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden concerning how much the data the NSA collects is related to American citizens.

According to this Washington Post report, only a small portion of information collected by the National Security Agency's PRISM and Upstream programs relates to its actual targets. According to information analyzed by the Washington Post, the NSA intercepted 160,000 e-mail and instant-message conversations and 7,900 documents taken from more than 11,000 online accounts from 2009 to 2012. About ten percent of those communications were specific to targets.

According to the publication's analysis, "nearly half" of the files contained details that the NSA had designated as belonging to US citizens or residents, which the agency "minimized," to protect those citizens' privacy. The 65,000 minimized references to Americans that the Post found in the cache, 900 additional e-mail addresses were found unmasked "that could be strongly linked to US citizens or US residents."

The Post also points out that when third-party communications are collected other agencies like the FBI are required "to stop listening to a call if a suspect’s wife or child is using the phone." The NSA does not have to follow such guidelines. They use one example, where the NSA "collected the words and identities" of every person in a chat room that a target entered, including the identities of lurkers who made no comment at all. The NSA'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," the Washington Post reports.

The report goes on to say that the NSA masks the identities of the people that appear in intercepted communications by hiding the names and terms found in the communications that could identify "possible," "potential," and "probable" US persons and entities like companies, universities, or Web-mail hosts.

"Some of them border on the absurd," the Washington Post writes, "using titles that could apply to only one man. A 'minimized US president-elect' begins to appear in the files in early 2009, and references to the current 'minimized US president' appear 1,227 times in the following four years."

But the most disturbing part of the report is how NSA analysts are taught that PRISM and Upstream collection of communications only requires a "reasonable belief" that the communicator is foreign to satisfy spying regulations.

"One analyst rests her claim that a target is foreign on the fact that his e-mails are written in a foreign language, a quality shared by tens of millions of Americans," the Post notes. "Others are allowed to presume that anyone on the chat 'buddy list' of a known foreign national is also foreign."

The determination that a target is foreign is an important one because when the NSA was founded by Harry S. Truman in 1952, it had a specific edict that it would not spy on American citizens, but on foreign powers and/or targets.

Source: Washington Post by way of Ars Technica

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