The NSA Can’t Tell the Difference Between an American and a Foreigner
… this is a narrow and legalistic statement.
The National Security Agency has said for years that its global surveillance apparatus is only aimed at foreigners, and that ordinary Americans are only captured by accident. There’s only one problem with this long-standing contention, people who’ve worked within the system say: it’s more-or-less technically impossible to keep average Americans out of the surveillance driftnet.
“There is physically no way to ensure that you’re only gathering U.S. person e-mails,” said a telecommunications executive who has implemented U.S. government orders to collect data on foreign targets. “The system doesn’t make any distinction about the nationality” of the individual who sent the message.
While it’s technically true that the NSA is not “targeting” the communications of Americans without a warrant, this is a narrow and legalistic statement. It belies the vast and indiscriminate scooping up of records on Americans’ phone calls, e-mails, and Internet communications that has occurred for more than a decade under the cover of “foreign intelligence” gathering.
The NSA is routinely capturing and storing vast amounts of the electronic communications of American citizens and legal residents, even though they were never individually the subject of a terrorism or criminal investigation, according to interviews with current and former intelligence officials, technology experts, and newly released government documents.
A significant portion of this secret information-gathering is the result of so-called “incidental collection” of U.S. persons’ information; Americans’ communications just happen to be in the way when foreigners’ data is scooped up.
This incidental collection is partly the result of the way the global communications network is constructed. When the agency receives authorization from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to collect a broad range of e-mails or electronic communications that it believes are coming out of a foreign country, it’s inevitable that it will collect some U.S. persons’ information, too.