NSA illegally collected data with wide surveillance reach

August 23, 2013 - 

This week, the U.S. Government officially released declassified documents that show that the National Security Agency was illegally collecting a broad range of domestic electronic communications on Americans.

NSA’s unlawful practices, which ended in 2011, entailed the collection of thousands of e-mails of American citizens, despite limits against such practices established by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

The NSA only changed its collection practices after a secret court that oversees government surveillance, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, ruled that the NSA’s behavior was unconstitutional.  The court also noted that the NSA misrepresented the scope of its surveillance operations.

The court estimates that incorrect collection of domestic data, including e-mails and other Internet activity, totaled approximately 60,000 communications a year. The NSA said that such collection were simply “mistakes” that went beyond the agency’s authority under the Patriot Act.

The declassified documents were released by the U.S. intelligence community through a new official Tumblr site, unveiled this week.  Director of National Intelligence James Clapper claims the site provides “immediate, ongoing and direct access to factual information related to lawful foreign surveillance activities”.

As BiometricUpdate.com reported last week, the documents were released as a consequence of President Obama directing his administration to reform U.S. surveillance programs, in order to make the intelligence community, which includes the NSA, as well as the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) more transparent.

The effort was meant to establish government credibility and educate the American public as to the legality and necessity of such surveillance programs in the face of terrorism.  As President Obama said in a media interview today, he understands that “for all the work that’s been done to protect the American people’s privacy, the capabilities of the NSA are scary to people. One of the challenges that we have is.. safeguards to make sure that the U.S. Government doesn’t abuse these capabilities.”  However, last week’s report in BiometricUpdate.com has shown that public opinion is wary of a federal government that it perceives is spying on law-abiding citizens.

This fear might be exacerbated by recent Washington Post revelations that the NSA has developed the capacity to monitor as much as 75 percent of all U.S. Web traffic.  In the past, the agency has only admitted that its network monitoring only touched 1.6 percent of the world’s Internet data.

The agency also has legal authority, working through wireless and wire-based phone companies, to monitor domestic incoming and outgoing calls, as well as calls between other countries that are routed domestically.

As reported previously by BiometricUpdate.com, the NSA had executed secret court orders on Verizon, as well as AT&T and Sprint, to obtain millions of subscriber’s telephone records.  The court orders, issued in April by the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, is the first known instance of en masse collection of telephone records in the United States.

While the U.S. claims it is not listening in on phone calls, it has been claimed in the press that it is analyzing call patterns in order to combat terrorism. Previous editorial commentary on BiometricUpdate.com indicated that the U.S. Government is already exploiting “Big Data” in the areas of surveillance for criminal and anti-terror investigations.  BiometricUpdate.com reporting has also found that U.S. Government is also increasingly developing “predictive pattern-matching” techniques to determine suspicious patterns of behavior by actively collecting and collating metadata from the Internet, cellular phone networks and other publicly-accessible sources.

Though not disclosed in any declassified or leaked documents, national security analysts can make the informed assumption that facial recognition systems are currently being applied by the U.S. intelligence community in their online surveillance operations.  Potential examples might include scanning photo content from Internet-based social networking sites against databases of known terrorists and criminals, or scanning such databases against photo-based e-mail avatars.

Another assumption that national security analysts can make is that other countries are engaged in wide-scale Internet and telecoms surveillance.  A report in Canada’s Globe & Mail newspaper claims that the Communications Security Establishment, Canada’s equivalent of the NSA, “may have illegally eavesdropped on Canadians over the past year” according to a report tabled to that country’s Parliament.

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About Rawlson King

Rawlson O’Neil King is a contributing editor at BiometricUpdate.com and is an experienced communications professional, management consultant, trade journalist and author who recently published a book about control and electronic networks and who has written numerous articles in trade publications and academic journals about smart home and building technologies. Follow him @rawlsonking2.