Scope of NSA Surveillance Broadens

The scope of the National Security Agency’s communications monitoring is broader than previously thought, according to the New York Times. Intelligence officials told the Times on Thursday that the NSA in fact sifts through Americans’ email and text communications into and out of the country as well, searching for information on foreigners under surveillance.

Rather than simply intercepting communications of Americans in direct contact with targeted foreigners, the NSA also conducts searches for people who mention information associated with those foreigners.

The surveillance process involves copying and searching through the content of most e-mails and text-based communications that cross the border, according to the senior intelligence official who spoke to the Times on condition of anonymity. The process is mechanized; a computer searches through data with identifying keywords that are “very precise” to minimize the number of innocent Americans flagged.

The reveal of cross-border surveillance adds a new dimension to the ongoing debate about whether the NSA infringes on Americans’ privacy by systematically combing through e-mails and phone data, looking for information connected to suspects abroad.

The agency argues that surveillance was authorized by the 2008 FISA Amendments Act, which allows domestic spying as long as the wanted individual was a noncitizen abroad.

“In carrying out its signals intelligence mission, N.S.A. collects only what it is explicitly authorized to collect,” Judith A. Emmel, an NSA spokeswoman, told the Times. “Moreover, the agency’s activities are deployed only in response to requirements for information to protect the country and its interests.”

Agency officials have thus far insisted that individual Americans will never be “targeted,” and that flagged conversations are handled with “minimalization” rules to protect the privacy of the domestic individual.