Latest Snowden Revelation Shows NSA Grabbing Ordinary Web Users’ Data

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Edward Snowden talks during a simulcast conversation during the SXSW Interactive Festival on Monday, March 10, 2014, in Austin, Texas. Snowden talked with American Civil Liberties Union’s principal technologist Christopher Soghoian, and answered tweeted questions. (Photo by Jack Plunkett/Invision/AP)
Edward Snowden talks during a simulcast conversation during the SXSW Interactive Festival on Monday, March 10, 2014, in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Jack Plunkett/Invision/AP)

Over the weekend, The Washington Post published a story with more revelations about the breadth and width of the NSA’s surveillance dragnet. Reported by Barton Gellman, Julie Tate and Ashkan Soltani, it was the result of a four-month investigation by the Post based on a “a large cache of intercepted conversations” leaked by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.

According to the report:

Ordinary Internet users, American and non-American alike, far outnumber legally targeted foreigners in the communications intercepted by the National Security Agency from US digital networks…

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.

Many of them were Americans. Nearly half of the surveillance files, a strikingly high proportion, contained names, e-mail addresses or other details that the NSA marked as belonging to US citizens or residents. NSA analysts masked, or “minimized,” more than 65,000 such references to protect Americans’ privacy, but The Post found nearly 900 additional e-mail addresses, unmasked in the files, that could be strongly linked to US citizens or US residents.

The surveillance files highlight a policy dilemma that has been aired only abstractly in public. There are discoveries of considerable intelligence value in the intercepted messages — and collateral harm to privacy on a scale that the Obama administration has not been willing to address.

Read the entire story at The Washington Post.

Kevin Drum of Mother Jones pointed out that the story contradicts what the NSA has been telling the public about the materials in Snowden’s possession:

For more than a year, NSA officials have insisted that although Edward Snowden had access to reports about NSA surveillance, he didn’t have access to the actual surveillance intercepts themselves. It turns out they were lying.

David Sanger and Matt Apuzzo report for The New York Times that over the weekend the Obama administration “sought to play down new disclosures that the National Security Agency has swept up innocent and often personal emails from ordinary Internet users as it targets suspected terrorists in its global surveillance for potential threats.”

Administration officials said the agency routinely filters out the communications of Americans and information that is of no intelligence value…

On Sunday, Robert Litt, the general counsel to the director of national intelligence, said in an interview that The Post’s article cites “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 702,” he said, referring to the law that governs the collection of information on foreigners. “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.” The administration has made no secret of the fact that, as it vacuums data from around the globe, it sometimes inadvertently collects information from innocent people, including some Americans.

But American Civil Liberties Union legislative counsel Naureen Shah argues that focusing only on the privacy concerns of American citizens is an inadequate defense in the face of charges that the agency’s massive surveillance program is out of control.

There are seven billion people in the world, and 95 percent of them live outside the United States. We know from dozens of revelations from the last year that few, if any, are immune from the watchful eyes of the National Security Agency.

Shah then offers five reasons why we need to protect “the rights to privacy and free expression for everyone – including the 95 percent.” She points out that “privacy is a human right,” and that the NSA’s surveillance authority means that “almost any person outside the US could potentially be targeted based on ‘foreign intelligence’ value.” She also notes that these revelations are damaging the United States’ credibility abroad.

Read Shah’s entire post at the ACLU’s Blog of Rights.

The latest revelation of the scope of NSA surveillance comes on the heels of what is shaping up as a major international incident: authorities in Germany have arrested an alleged US spy they claim handed American intelligence details of a German probe into NSA activities in that country. Lizzie Dearden of The Independent writes about the story first reported last week by Der Spiegel:

An alleged spy has been arrested in Germany accused of passing the US information from a committee looking into NSA activities.

It has heightened diplomatic tensions between the two countries following allegations in the Edward Snowden leaks that the US electronic spy agency tapped Angela Merkel’s phone along with wider surveillance of German citizens.

The German government has not denied reports by Der Spiegel and the Sueddeutsche Zeitung that the suspected spy was a double agent and worked for Germany’s foreign intelligence service, the BND.

The newspapers said the man allegedly passed the US information about a German parliamentary committee’s investigation into the NSA’s activities.

He claimed to have worked with US intelligence since 2012, they reported…

The latest allegations of spying by the US, Germany’s supposed ally, have provoked outrage across the country, where memories of espionage by the Stasi secret police are still fresh for some residents.

Read the whole story at The Independent

And see Bill’s discussion of government spying with Harvard legal scholar Lawrence Lessig below.

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