As each revelation about NSA snooping is published, you have to wonder where the bottom is on this scandal.
In truth, we're nowhere near it yet.
The New York Times is reporting that the NSA is vacuuming up huge amounts of data collected from Americans who send emails overseas and Americans overseas who send emails back home. No warrant, of course, and that 2008 FISA "reform" statute, where the NSA says they get the authority, is looking worse all the time.
The National Security Agency is searching the contents of vast amounts of Americans' e-mail and text communications into and out of the country, hunting for people who mention information about foreigners under surveillance, according to intelligence officials.
The N.S.A. is not just intercepting the communications of Americans who are in direct contact with foreigners targeted overseas, a practice that government officials have openly acknowledged. It is also casting a far wider net for people who cite information linked to those foreigners, like a little used e-mail address, according to a senior intelligence official.
While it has long been known that the agency conducts extensive computer searches of data it vacuums up overseas, that it is systematically searching - without warrants - through the contents of Americans' communications that cross the border reveals more about the scale of its secret operations.
It also adds another element to the unfolding debate, provoked by the disclosures of Edward J. Snowden, the former N.S.A. contractor, about whether the agency has infringed on Americans' privacy as it scoops up e-mails and phone data in its quest to ferret out foreign intelligence.
Government officials say the cross-border surveillance was authorized by a 2008 law, the FISA Amendments Act, in which Congress approved eavesdropping on domestic soil without warrants as long as the "target" was a noncitizen abroad. Voice communications are not included in that surveillance, the senior official said.
"In carrying out its signals intelligence mission, N.S.A. collects only what it is explicitly authorized to collect," she said. "Moreover, the agency's activities are deployed only in response to requirements for information to protect the country and its interests."
"Explicitly authorized"? Not hardly. It is the NSA's interpretation of the law that is at issue. And the loose interpretation of "requirements for information to protect the country and its interests" is a familiar dodge used by intel agencies to justify surveillance.
The explanation of how this program works is chilling:
To conduct the surveillance, the N.S.A. is temporarily copying and then sifting through the contents of what is apparently most e-mails and other text-based communications that cross the border. The senior intelligence official, who, like other former and current government officials, spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic, said the N.S.A. makes a "clone of selected communication links" to gather the communications, but declined to specify details, like the volume of the data that passes through them.
Computer scientists said that it would be difficult to systematically search the contents of the communications without first gathering nearly all cross-border text-based data; fiber-optic networks work by breaking messages into tiny packets that flow at the speed of light over different pathways to their shared destination, so they would need to be captured and reassembled.
The official said that a computer searches the data for the identifying keywords or other "selectors" and stores those that match so that human analysts could later examine them. The remaining communications, the official said, are deleted; the entire process takes "a small number of seconds," and the system has no ability to perform "retrospective searching."
The official said the keyword and other terms were "very precise" to minimize the number of innocent American communications that were flagged by the program. At the same time, the official acknowledged that there had been times when changes by telecommunications providers or in the technology had led to inadvertent overcollection. The N.S.A. monitors for these problems, fixes them and reports such incidents to its overseers in the government, the official said.
I don't know about you but I am so relieved that after "accidentally" collecting my data, the NSA reports to its "government overseers." What are they going to do about it after the fact? Send me an email apologizing for snooping?
Congress should take a second look at that 2008 FISA law and either deep six it or fix it. Give these guys an inch and they take a mile.