Only 10 percent of NSA intercepts were official targets (Wired UK)


Ars TechnicaLate Saturday night (5 July), the
Washington Post dropped a bombshell of a report related
to a trove of documents leaked by former National Security Agency
contractor Edward Snowden. The documents included 160,000 e-mail
and instant-message conversations intercepted by the NSA, as well
as 7,900 documents taken from more than 11,000 online accounts. The
Washington Post says that the information spans from 2009
to 2012.

This article is the first acknowledgement that the cache of
documents from Snowden includes not just documents describing how
NSA operates, but actual intercepted communications. Those
communications include both intelligence targets, as well as
“people who may cross a target’s path,” the Post

In the Post’s analysis, “nearly half” of the files
contained details that the NSA had marked as belonging to US
citizens or residents, which the agency masked, or “minimised,” to
protect those citizens’ privacy. Still, despite the 65,000
minimised references to Americans that the Post found in
the cache, 900 additional e-mail addreses were found unmasked “that
could be strongly linked to US citizens or US residents.”

The Post did not reproduce any of the intercepted

The paper does describe some of the valuable information that
the NSA was able to gather in the sweeping surveillance method.
“[F]resh revelations about a secret overseas nuclear project,
double-dealing by an ostensible ally, a military calamity that
befell an unfriendly power, and the identities of aggressive
intruders into US computer networks,” are all contained within the
communications that Snowden leaked. But many more, belonging to
more than 10,000 account holders, are unrelated to national
security and are decidedly personal, detailing “love and
heartbreak, illicit sexual liaisons, mental-health crises,
political and religious conversions, financial anxieties and
disappointed hopes.”

The e-mails and instant-messages were collected through the
NSA’s PRISM and Upstream programs, the
Post said.

The Post also notes that while collection of
third-party communications is unavoidable in many cases, agencies
like the FBI are required “to stop listening to a call if a
suspect’s wife or child is using the phone.” By contrast, 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 in the chat room. 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
Post reports.

In order to mask the identities of the people that appear
incidentally in the intercepted communications, the NSA “minimises”
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 Post writes, “using titles that
could apply to only one man. A ‘minimised US president-elect’
begins to appear in the files in early 2009, and references to the
current ‘minimised US president’ appear 1,227 times in the
following four years.”

Finally and perhaps most disturbingly, the Post writes
that 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.”

This article originally appeared on Ars Technica

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