The NSA's Online Dragnet

Warrantless surveillance hits the target, along with many other people.


As an Illinois senator running for president in 2008, Barack Obama promised there would be no more "wiretaps without warrants" under his administration. He abandoned that position even before he was elected to the White House, voting for legislation that amended the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) to let the National Security Agency (NSA) collect Americans' international communications without a warrant.

The targets of such surveillance were supposed to be foreigners located outside of the United States, and the purpose of the surveillance was supposed to be the acquisition of "foreign intelligence information," implying that the targets would be suspected spies or terrorists. But judging from a recent analysis by The Washington Post, about half of the people whose communications the NSA intercepts under Section 702 of FISA are U.S. citizens or legal residents, and the vast majority are innocent bystanders.

Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden provided the Post with a large sample of communications collected by the agency, including "160,000 intercepted e-mail and instant-message conversations" and "7,900 documents taken from more than 11,000 online accounts." The Post found that "nine of 10 account holders…were not the intended surveillance targets," while "nearly half of the surveillance files…contained names, e-mail addresses or other details that the NSA marked as belonging to U.S. citizens or residents."

Why does a surveillance program that was supposed to be narrowly targeted look so indiscriminate? Because all the people who come into contact with a target, no matter how innocently or tangentially, are swept into the NSA's online dragnet, regardless of their locations or nationalities.

Anyone who communicates directly with a target is considered fair game, including U.S. citizens on U.S. soil. But even if you've never corresponded with a friend in Pakistan or a client in Iraq, you may have inadvertently rubbed electronic shoulders with someone under surveillance.

"If a target entered an online chat room," the Post reports, "the NSA collected the words and identities of every person who posted there, regardless of subject, as well as every person who simply 'lurked,' reading passively what other people wrote." Sometimes "the NSA designated as its target the [I.P. address] of a computer server used by hundreds of people."

Not surprisingly, the material that the NSA obtains through these methods includes much information of questionable relevance to national security. The Post mentions medical records, academic transcripts, romantic correspondence, descriptions of sexual encounters, discussions of emotional crises and financial troubles, pictures of babies and toddlers, and racy photos of bare-chested men and lingerie-clad women.

An NSA fact sheet about Section 702 says "any inadvertently acquired communication of or concerning a U.S. person must be promptly destroyed if it is neither relevant to the authorized purpose nor evidence of a crime." But according to the Post, "The NSA treats all content intercepted incidentally from third parties as permissible to retain, store, search and distribute to its government customers." The Post found that the NSA retains a great deal of material with no apparent intelligence value, "described as useless by analysts."

According to the Obama administration, all this is old news and no big deal. "These reports simply discuss the kind of incidental interception of communications that we have always said takes place under Section 702," Robert Litt, general counsel to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, told The New York Times on Sunday. "The most that you could conclude from these news reports is that each valid foreign intelligence target talks to an average of nine people."

If the mass collection of sensitive information about law-abiding people is to be expected, as my Reason colleague Scott Shackford observes, it is not really accurate to say it happens "inadvertently" or "not wittingly," as Clapper put it in congressional testimony last year. When such a wholesale invasion of privacy is the inevitable and predictable result of certain intelligence methods, choosing to use those methods means you are doing it on purpose.

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  1. Sounds like he knows what is going on over there.


  2. legislation that amended the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) to let the National Security Agency (NSA) collect Americans’ international communications without a warrant.

    Because we all know that legislation trumps the constitution. It’s in the FYTW clause.

  3. I don’t get it. With all the blatantly unconstitutional goings-on in Washington, I expected my plan to go long on lumber and rope would have paid off by now.

    Oh that’s right. People are pussies and love to be lorded over. I guess Banjos was right. I should have gone long instead on Brazilian Kleenex.

    1. Most people still get their news from the major media outlets, where this is nothing but the government trying to protect us from the terrorists. Why would you get worked up over that? Do you want the terrorists to win?

    2. I don’t know…depending on the mood in Brazil right now, going long on lumber and rope might still work out.

      1. *narrows gaze – stares*

        1. I made a comment on a thread two days ago that, barring complicity from the officials, Germany would demolish Brazil. I even went so far as to say unless the Brazilians were gifted multiple penalties that they had no chance at all of competing. I was mocked,for my prediction.

          Well fuck the retards that couldn’t see this coming a mile away. And yes, it was worse than I predicted but I fully expected Germany to win by at least 3 goals.

          1. I have literally not seen 30 seconds of this kickball tournament and don’t care. But the butthurt and mega-posting during yesterday’s game was WONDERFUL!

            I feel like I was there.

            Less the crushing poverty, heat, disappearing rain forests, uber crime, lack of World Police status, etc.

            1. Uber crime? Uber crime is what’s taking food off my table and forcing starvation on my children.
              -DC Cab Medallion holder.








      You SURE rope and logs aren’t in order for Brasilians?

      1. Wouldn’t it just be easier to push the wall of a crumbling building on somebody in Brazil?

        Or just park the team bus under a pedestrian walkway to the stadium?

        1. +1 pile of rubble

          1. Maybe they’ll incorporate that into the Olympic opening ceremony in 2 years?

            Oh, quick question. Are,those Olympic Games going to be held during their summer or in the northern hemispheres summer since Rio would be like a sauna in January?

            1. This is a very good question. I do not know.

              They got the Limpicks, too? I missed that somewhere…guess it was in my “I don’t give a fuck about this, either” pile.



            2. They are scheduled to be held from August 5 to 21, 2016.

              1. That’s a lot better than hosting it in their summer.

                It’s also more proof that the Northern Hemisphere is more important, and thereby better, than the Southern Hemisphere.

                1. Northern Hemisphere is more important, and thereby better, than the Southern Hemisphere.

                  Well, that just goes without saying.

                  1. Well, that just goes without saying.

                    This was my feeling as well. I mean, Australia is populated with criminals and is teeming with Uber dangerous wildlife, and who cares about everywhere else? Though I do think the All Blacks and Chilean women are world treasures. Could we make an exception for those?

                    1. I do think the All Blacks and Chilean women are world treasures. Could we make an exception for those?


            3. At least we’ll be able to watch events live rather than on time delay due to the games being held several time zones away.

              1. Only if the events are held at a time NBC wants to show them live. Otherwise we’ll still get 1 minute of sports, 19 minutes of ads, and 40 minutes of sob stories about athletes with cancer-stricken relatives.

                1. Absolutely correct. Having watched the 2000 games on Eurosport, I have no interest in NBC?s coverage.

        2. Or just park the team bus under a pedestrian walkway to the stadium?

          It’s been done.

      2. Sheesh, that was like eight games worth of goals.

        1. Yeah, for a normal soccer match. Or an Oilers-Flames matchup.

          1. Nice. Are you here all week?

        2. I counted seven in that comment, so that’s twenty-one games worth of goals.

          1. The Onion had a very good Infographic on the sport. Best part, “Field has two goal areas though one or less is usually needed.”

  4. OT: Nothing to see here, move along. BBC encourages reporters to limit reporting on WACKO BIRD scientific views. Like, that AGW isn’t a thing…


    1. The Ministry of Truth approves.

      1. We have always been at war with Manmade Global Warming Climate Change Not Weather.

    2. Replace “AGW” with “eugenics” and that could have easily been written by the dons at Cambridge, Oxford and the Royal Science Academy 80 years ago.

    3. What a shock. Social activists masquerading as both scientists and journalists ignore the bedrock principles of their profession in order to push a leftist political agenda.

      1. I think I liked the world better when idiots like this were just old-fashioned religious zealots.

        1. Just because the faith has changes does not mean they are not religious zealots.

          1. Right, but it is easier to mock idiots that worship an ideology made up out of whole cloth and only designed for a select few to have unlimited power over everyone else…oh wait, I see what you did there.

            1. it is easier to mock idiots that worship an ideology made up out of whole cloth

              – 1 “Behead those who insult Islam

        2. There traded in their sandwich boards with ” The End Is Nigh!” written on it for their Priuses.

          1. Doomsday cults have always been popular. Heck, even Christianity is a doomsday cult. The signs of the Apocalypse are always out there, and always will be.

            1. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a cult. It’s at least based on the teachings of a person that actually lived and his recorded works.

              It’s a faith, but reality-based in more ways that AGW.*

              *Im pretty sure everybody here knows I’m Catholic, but I’ll post the disclaimer anyway.

              1. Wait, there’s actual evidence of a historical Jesus? When did this come to light?

                1. I Googled “historical evidence of jesus.” Found this article among the results.

                  1. A source written six generations after the fact (116 CE), of which no known copy predates the 11th cetury? I guess the science is settled, then.
                    Thanks for bringing that to my attention for the next time someone presents it as “evidence”.

  5. OT: most entitled group of assholes in the world express their true feelings on private property rights, equality under the law and general dickishness.


    1. But, but, but… beating up homeless people and harassing teenagers is dangerous work!

      1. I don’t think teenagers hang out at Ikea. 😉

    2. How long until the store is swatted?

      1. My guess is that even if there were an armed robbery in progress, these cops won’t be driving quickly to that IKEA.

        Now, I’d be willing to bet the LP guy who asked the cop to leave will get a ticket and have his car ransacked every time he ventures 2 mph over the speed limit.

  6. “If a target entered an online chat room,” the Post reports, “the NSA collected the words and identities of every person who posted there, regardless of subject, as well as every person who simply ‘lurked,’ reading passively what other people wrote.”

    Good thing no “targets” enter Hit & Run, huh?

  7. OT: Cracked.com is making more sense than the NY Times again

    And yet, as we’ve written about before, police departments all over America are going mad with power. SWAT teams are everywhere, doing stuff like storming art galleries for serving alcohol without the right permit and raiding Tibetan monks who overstayed their visas. In general, American cops are projecting less “friendly face of public order” and more “bad guys who just stumbled out of a young-adult dystopian movie.”

    Read more: http://www.cracked.com/blog/4-…..z36yPC1HMb

    1. A reporter at my local paper did an Independence Day article about how our government has basically become what we rebelled against.
      He’s the guy who does the police beat. Or he was anyway. I doubt the cops will let him ride with them ever again.

      1. Oh I wouldn’t be surprised if he participated in several “ride-alongs” in the future.

      2. Usually a story like that is only written when a journalist has already accepted a position at another paper in a distant, and larger, market.

        Balko is the only cop-beat writer I can recall that routinely calls out their expanding militancy without somehow justifying it with “but the children” bullshit.

      3. Got a link? Or was it removed days ago?

        1. I just tried to find it and failed, but that doesn’t mean anything. Their archive and search engine sucks ass, so even if it was there it would be practically impossible to find.

      4. You read the local paper? God bless you, sarc.

  8. So I wonder why they have so much spare time on their hands.


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