Civil Liberties

Targeted Surveillance? NSA Says It Can't Distinguish American Emails From Foreign Missives.


How carefully targeted is National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance of email and other electronic communications? According to an internal NSA memo, "it is not possible to determine what communications are to or from U.S. persons nearly as readily as is the case with telephony, and often is not possible at all."

The revelation comes in documents pried from the governments' sticky fingers by the American Civil Liberties Union in the course of its efforts to plumb the parameters of Executive Order 12333, a secretive directive that lies behind much of the federal government's electronic surveillance. The executive order is intended to authorize efforts against foreign actors but, as the memo reveals, the snoopers are pretty much reduced to gathering everthing up and then separating out the material on which they're not supposed to be spying after the fact.

But there may be some problems with asking snoops to respect your privacy after they've gathered your communications. For one thing, they have a record of not doing that. An internal NSA legal memo also collected by the ACLU frets that signals intelligence personnel are engaged in the unauthorized "sharing of voice cuts and/or similar material compiled in the course of SIGINT collection with other SIGINT personnel." The memo goes on to suggest that the Inspector General "assess whether the SIGINT personnel involved were spending their work time engaged in non-productive activity."

The ACLU's Ashley Gorski points out that this almost certainly refers to the sharing of sexy best-of out-takes, as alleged in 2008 by a former NSA military intercept operator.

So when Director of National Intelligence James Clapper initially denied that government snoops were scooping up Americans' data, then described that answer as "the least untruthful" response he could give to questioning before finally conceding that his words were "clearly erroneous," he wasn't just blowing hot air. In the age of nude selfies, smartphone sex videos, and erotic texts, he was probably loath to lose out on some fine entertainment.