PRISM: Nine out of 10 people NSA spied on were accidental targets

Majority of citizens whose data the NSA gathered in mass-surveillance campaigns were not meant to be monitored

Fresh leaked documents have revealed that nine out of 10 people monitored by the US National Security Agency (NSA) were accidentally targeted during its infamous mass-surveillance campaigns.

The Washington Post revealed the news after examining surveillance documents leaked by ex-CIA analyst Edward Snowden. The Washington Post said: “Nine of 10 account holders found in a large cache of intercepted conversations […] were not the intended surveillance targets, but were caught in a net the agency had cast for somebody else.”

The data reportedly included roughly 160,000 intercepted email and instant-messaging conversations and 7,900 documents taken from more than 11,000 online accounts. The material was collected from 2009 to 2012.

At the time of publishing the White House and Department of Defence (DoD) had not responded to V3‘s request for comment about the report.

An NSA spokeswoman referred V3 to a comment Robert Litt, general counsel of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, made to The New York Times. “Recent news accounts cite figures that suggest foreign intelligence collection intercepts the communications of nine ‘bystanders’ for every ‘legally targeted’ foreigner. These reports simply discuss the kind of incidental interception of communications that we have always said takes place under Section 70,” he said.

“We target only valid foreign intelligence targets under that authority, and the most that you could conclude from these news reports is that each valid foreign intelligence target talks to an average of nine people.”

Roughly half of those monitored were said to be US citizens, and the other half were made up of an undisclosed mix of foreign citizens.

The data reportedly included details about the affected citizens’ work and personal lives and was stored by the NSA, despite being officially classified as useless by analysts.

Snowden told The Washington Post this was proof the NSA has overstepped its bounds. “Even if one could conceivably justify the initial, inadvertent interception of baby pictures and love letters of innocent bystanders their continued storage in government databases is both troubling and dangerous. Who knows how that information will be used in the future,” he said.

Snowden cited the mass surveillance as further proof of the need for fresh legislation to control and monitor agencies such as the NSA and their use of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) requests and National Security Letters.

FISA and National Security Letters let the NSA force numerous companies, including Google, Yahoo, Apple and Microsoft, to hand over vast amounts of customer data. The nature of the requests means the companies are not allowed to disclose what information was handed over without risking arrest.

Obama pledged to push through new legislation adding fresh safeguards and checks to control the use of FISA and National Security Letters as a part of a wider set of post-PRISM reforms in January.

However, the data leaked by Snowden showed that, despite the high number of innocent people monitored by the NSA, the campaigns did help in some legitimate operations.

The data reportedly included: “Fresh 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.”

The data also reportedly helped lead to the 2011 capture of a Pakistan-based bomb builder and a suspect in a 2002 terrorist bombing on the Indonesian island of Bali.

The news runs contrary to Snowden’s previous argument that operations such as PRISM yielded no positive results. Snowden argued that operations such as PRISM are a waste of time and resources during a Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly on improving the protection of whistleblowers in June.

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