It may not come as a surprise, but the NSA has been collecting far more content about innocent Internet users than about its targets. In fact, about 90 percent of the people the intelligence agency was spying on were not real targets.
According to the Washington Post, when the NSA intercepted the online accounts of various foreigners it was legally looking into, it also collected the conversations of countless more ordinary Internet users, both Americans and non-Americans. This happened over a four-year period.
What kind of data did the National Security Agency collect? Well, the files include names, email addresses, as well as other details, which made it easy to figure out that about half the documents belonged to US citizens or residents. This means the NSA clearly knew whom they were collecting data on, if any additional proof was needed to this extent.
The newspaper writes that NSA analysts masked over 65,000 references to protect the privacy of Americans, but some additional 900 email addresses could be strongly linked to US citizens the NSA was not supposed to spy on.
The data collected from actual targets has high value. For instance, there’s information about a secret overseas nuclear project, the identities of aggressive intruders into the US computer network, a treacherous ally, and more.
The Post gives an example, although it refrains from sharing additional ones at the request of the CIA, since they would compromise ongoing investigations. According to the files, communications were tracked across dozens of alias accounts for several months until they led them to a bomb builder.
The individual was captured in 2011 in Pakistan and he was already a suspect of the 2002 terrorist bombing in Bali.
The material the Post had access to includes some 160,000 intercepted email and instant messaging conversations, some of which have hundreds of pages. There are also nearly 8,000 documents from over 11,000 online accounts that were collected between 2009 and 2012.
10,000 people who weren’t on the NSA’s target list were spied on, their conversations catalogued and recorded, whether the topic was political, medical, financial, religious or regarded the individual’s love life.
As expected, there are also some 5,000 photos that were intercepted in this manner, making the privacy violation that much more serious.
Another aspect that should be noted is the fact that the data collection in this case goes way beyond the regular metadata that’s being snagged in the wide net spread by the intelligence agency. Even that type of data is extremely expressive and gives out more personal details than we’d be comfortable with, since information can be put together to form a clear image about the individuals affected.
According to the law, the NSA can only target foreign nationals who live overseas. If it obtains a warrant based on probable cause, the range can widen a bit.