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US officials: NSA overseas surveillance is targeted, not bulk collection

Grant Gross | March 20, 2014
A U.S. National Security Agency surveillance program focused on overseas telephone and email communications is targeted and narrow, and not the bulk collection portrayed in numerous news reports from recent months, U.S. officials told a privacy watchdog board Wednesday.

A U.S. National Security Agency surveillance program focused on overseas telephone and email communications is targeted and narrow, and not the bulk collection portrayed in numerous news reports from recent months, U.S. officials told a privacy watchdog board Wednesday.

Contrary to denials from many technology companies, the NSA's foreign surveillance programs authorized by section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act have the participation of those vendors, officials with the U.S. intelligence community told the U.S. Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB).

Internet service providers and other technology companies "would have received legal process" documents when the NSA wanted to conduct surveillance on their customers, said Rajesh De, the NSA's general counsel. The NSA collects communications to and from certain email and telephone targets, with assistance from communications providers, and it also engages in upstream collection from the "Internet backbone," De said.

The picture U.S. officials painted to the PCLOB about NSA foreign surveillance efforts is very different from news reports based on leaks from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden over the past nine months.

Just a day after the Washington Post reported that the NSA has built a surveillance system capable of recording all of a foreign country's telephone calls, officials said the agency's surveillance programs focused on foreign communications don't target entire regions or countries but rather specific email addresses and telephone numbers.

The overseas programs are not bulk collection, added Robert Litt, general counsel in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Bulk collection is "getting a whole bunch of communications, hanging onto them, and then figuring out later what you want," he said. "This is not that. This is a situation where we figure out what we want, and we get that specifically."

To target a person under the overseas programs, the NSA needs "reason to believe" the communications are relevant to a foreign intelligence purpose.

Numerous press reports based on information from Snowden have suggested the NSA, through a program called Prism, is sifting through the servers of nine technology companies, including Microsoft, Google, Facebook and Apple. Most of those companies have denied giving the NSA access to their servers.

The NSA has also intercepted Internet communications in transit, planned to distribute surveillance malware targeting millions of computers and intercepted the mobile phone calls of millions of people, according to leaks from Snowden.

While officials from the NSA, ODNI and the Department of Justice denied reports that they are collecting overseas communications in bulk, others testifying at the PCLOB hearing voiced skepticism. The intelligence officials appear to be using a narrow definition of collection by suggesting that intercepting emails and telephone calls doesn't constitute collection, said Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director of American Civil Liberties Union.

 

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