A bombshell report dropped by the Washington Post Saturday night reveals that “ordinary Internet users” far outnumber legally targeted foreigners in the communications intercepted by the National Security Agency from U.S. data networks.
The findings come after a four-month investigation by The Post, which included an analysis of over 160,000 emails and instant messages provided by Edward Snowden. Neither Snowden nor The Post disclosed, until now, that he obtained and shared the content of these communications.
90 percent of account holders in the communications were “not the intended NSA surveillance targets but were caught in a net the agency had cast for somebody else.”
“Many of them were Americans,” wrote Barton Gellman, Julie Tate and Ashkan Soltani, authors of the article. “Nearly half of the surveillance files, a strikingly high proportion, contained names, e-mail addresses or other details that the NSA marked as belonging to U.S. citizens or residents.”
By law, the NSA may only ‘target’ foreign nationals located overseas. To target Americans and communications within the U.S., the NSA needs a warrant based on probable cause from a special surveillance court, known as a FISA court. Most of the people being surveilled in the documents obtained by The Post were not the actual targets and would not have lawfully qualified as such.
According to The Post’s report, there are many ways to be subject to incidental collection. For instance, if a target enters an online chat room, the NSA collects both the posts 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.
In this way, the daily lives of over 10,000 unsuspecting Internet users were cataloged and recorded.