NSA To Scale Back Email Snooping

John Lister's picture

The National Security Agency (NSA) is to revise a controversial program that let it read emails from US citizens without a warrant. It also says it will delete many of the messages it collected in this way.

The program has been dubbed "Section 702 activities", named after the relevant part of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Such activities are significant because they are an exception to the general principle that the NSA doesn't carry out surveillance within the US, something that would normally bring constitutional rights to privacy into play.

Section 702 allowed the NSA to search the communications of US citizens to see if they had any mention of a foreign person who was under surveillance, even if the US citizen wasn't communicating directly with the person in question.

Innocent People's Messages Searched

The big problem was the process of searching for such mentions means that the NSA was accessing, and in some cases, storing communications from US citizens who were neither suspects nor communicating with suspects.

Privacy expert Julian Sanchez told Reuters this was a key distinction, noting that "Usually you identify a specific individual to scrutinize their content; this was scrutinizing everyone's content to find mentions of an individual." (Source: bbc.co.uk)

Congress To Review Issue

The NSA says it will now revise its Section 702 activities and will only use the process to monitor communications from US citizens when they are directly communicating with a foreign suspect. It says it made the change after reviewing "mission needs, current technological constraints, United States person privacy interests, and certain difficulties in implementation." It also says it will delete "the vast majority" of the previously collected messages "as soon as practicable." (Source: nsa.gov)

It's possible the agency is making the change voluntarily before its hand was forced. The powers the NSA has under the relevant law need to be renewed by the end of the year if they are to carry on having legal force. Congress will be carrying out that review and it appears Section 702 activities will be one of the key powers that politicians want to examine and potentially constrain.

What's Your Opinion?

Is the NSA right to make this change? Should it be allowed to continue examining messages without warrant when they are between US citizens and foreign suspects? What questions should Congress ask when reviewing and renewing the powers?

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Dennis Faas's picture

I am more apt to think that they've made a technological breakthrough with the way they carry out their mass surveillance spying, and therefore no longer need to spy on every citizen in the United States (and beyond). Perhaps they are less concerned about emails which aren't very targeted, and instead have managed to bug all the smartphones, which use more efficient algorithms to extract pertinent information. Consider it "spying 3.0".