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Most NSA-Collected Data Comes From Ordinary Internet Users

Ashley Yang |
July 6, 2014 | 10:56 p.m. PDT

Executive Producer

The NSA holds deeply personal information from hundreds of thousands of bystanders. (Pascal Kirchmair, Wikimedia Commons)
The NSA holds deeply personal information from hundreds of thousands of bystanders. (Pascal Kirchmair, Wikimedia Commons)
According to an extended investigation by the Washington Post, the NSA’s online data-collection measures capture more information from ordinary Internet users than legally named foreign targets.

In a large cache of intercepted conversations provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, the Post found that nine out of 10 people were caught in a net that the agency had cast for some other intended surveillance target.

Although many of the intercepted messages have proven invaluable to apprehending suspected terrorists around the world, the fact that so many names, email addresses, and other identifying details collected by the NSA are connected to ordinary Americans presents harms to privacy on a scale that the Obama administration has not addressed.

No government oversight body has reviewed a large portion of the data collected by the NSA following amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which enabled the Agency to more freely use surveillance methods that previously required a signed warrant from a judge. 

Though “incidental collection” of third-party information is inevitable in many forms of cyber-surveillance, the U.S. government has worked in other contexts to limit and discard data irrelevant to legal targets. The Obama administration has declined to discuss the scale of incidental collection, and the NSA claims that it is unable to give an estimate of how many people have been swept up.

In a June transparency report, the Director of National Intelligence asserts that under 90,000 people were targets of NSA surveillance, intentionally or collaterally. But the sample provided by Snowden is representative, the NSA’s dragnet has collected data from over 900,000 online accounts. 

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