Here's another piece of information to file into the recent leaks disclosing classified domestic surveillance programs: the National Security Agency is not just monitoring the communication data of those in direct contact with foreigners under investigation, but just mentioning them (or information related to them) will catch the NSA's eye as well, according to The New York Times.
Demonstrators take part in a protest against the National Security Agency collecting German emails, online chats and phone calls and sharing some of it with the country's intelligence services on July 27, 2013 in Berlin. (Getty Images/John MacDougall)
This practice was hinted at, the Times stated, in the leak by former government contractor Edward Snowden to the U.K.'s Guardian newspaper. With other details about the surveillance programs jockeying for top spot at the time, the detail that the NSA "seeks to acquire communications about the target that are not to or from the target" was overlooked, the Times reported.
Last month, it was revealed the NSA had a program collecting "nearly everything a typical user does on the Internet." A senior intelligence official told the Times that the NSA uses keywords to search the content of electronic communications and analysts later review them to see if they're relevant to a target under investigation.
Here's more on the rule that allows this practice to happen and the issue of "targeting" the communications of someone in the U.S.:
Timothy Edgar, a former intelligence official in the Bush and Obama administrations, said that the rule concerning collection “about” a person targeted for surveillance rather than directed at that person had provoked significant internal discussion.
“There is an ambiguity in the law about what it means to ‘target’ someone,” Mr. Edgar, now a visiting professor at Brown, said. “You can never intentionally target someone inside the United States. Those are the words we were looking at. We were most concerned about making sure the procedures only target communications that have one party outside the United States.”
The rule they ended up writing, which was secretly approved by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, says that the N.S.A. must ensure that one of the participants in any conversation that is acquired when it is searching for conversations about a targeted foreigner must be outside the United States, so that the surveillance is technically directed at the foreign end.
In a statement about the legality of targeting communications data, NSA spokeswoman Judith Emmel told the Times the agency sticks to the boundaries of the law.
“In carrying out its signals intelligence mission, NSA 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.”
Senior lawyer with the ACLU Jameel Jaffer told the Times that he believes these revelations will cause people to "hesitate before visiting controversial websites, discussing controversial topics or investigating politically sensitive questions." This, in turn, would lead to a change in "citizens’ relationship to one another and to the government."
Be sure to check out the New York Times' full article for more details about the legal issues surround the "about the target" distinction and how the NSA has used this information.