US spooks snoop more than they say

NSA claims that it is only focused on foreign communications and US citizens are only spied on by accident have been rubbished by new information reported in the Wall Street Journal.

The National Security Agency has only limited legal authority to spy on US citizens and yet for some reason it has built a surveillance network that covers more than 75 percent of Americans’ web use.

The WSJ said that the system has the capacity to reach roughly 75 percent of all US Internet traffic.

In some cases, it retains the written content of emails sent between citizens within the US and also filters domestic phone calls made with internet technology.

What is weird about some of these disclosures is that they have been public for years. Whistleblower Mark Klein revealed years ago that the NSA has deals with the major telcos which scoop up a huge amount of internet traffic.

These programmes were code-named Blarney, Fairview, Oakstar, Lithium and Stormbrew and they filter and gather information at major telecommunications companies.

Filtering is carried out at more than a dozen locations at major internet junctions in the US.

The NSA was not being exactly truthful when it said that the information copied was just metadata either. The NSA has the capability to track almost anything that happens online, although it does still need a broad court order.

There is also some measure of NSA doublespeak. It can claim that it’s not “accessing” all of this traffic, because it asks the telcos to do some of the filtering for it. But effectively it amounts to the same thing.

The WSJ confirms that while most of the requests are targeted towards foreign communications, there are times when it’s quite clear that requests are likely to cover domestic communications.

Part of this is because there is a broad interpretation of the FISA Amendments Act, giving the NSA the power to snoop on people “reasonably believed” to be outside the US. This is a much lower legal standard than requiring “probable cause” that they were “an agent of a foreign power.

Some of the “mistakes” listed by the NSA which lead to data being collected on everyone in Washington were probably more deliberate than they appeared. The NSA fessed up to one operator mistake which involved in data being collected on New York instead of Egypt “for three months”. However the Journal found that it had three years of illegal collections.