NSA Ends Upstream “About” Data Collection

The National Security Agency (NSA) claims to have finally ended the warrantless surveillance of US citizens’ communications with overseas individuals where foreign targets are mentioned.

The practice of so-called “about” data collection, which is said to encroach on Fourth Amendment protections, first emerged as a result of the Edward Snowden leaks.

It refers to the bulk surveillance of US citizens communicating with those outside the country, where they have merely mentioned the name or email address of a foreign target.

This “upstream” collection is made possible by special equipment ISPs installed on their infrastructure to monitor cross-border communications.

In a lengthy statement on Friday, the NSA said its failure to comply with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) was “inadvertent”.

It explained:

“After considerable evaluation of the program and available technology, NSA has decided that its Section 702 foreign intelligence surveillance activities will no longer include any upstream internet communications that are solely ‘about’ a foreign intelligence target. Instead, this surveillance will now be limited to only those communications that are directly ‘to’ or ‘from’ a foreign intelligence target. These changes are designed to retain the upstream collection that provides the greatest value to national security while reducing the likelihood that NSA will acquire communications of US persons or others who are not in direct contact with one of the Agency's foreign intelligence targets.

In addition, as part of this curtailment, NSA will delete the vast majority of previously acquired upstream internet communications as soon as practicable.”

The news was welcomed by Oregon senator, Ron Wyden, a Democrat who has long campaigned for rolling back the NSA’s intrusive surveillance powers.

"This change ends a practice that could result in Americans' communications being collected without a warrant merely for mentioning a foreign target,” he said in a statement.

“For years, I've repeatedly raised concerns that this amounted to an end run around the Fourth Amendment. This transparency should be commended. To permanently protect Americans' rights, I intend to introduce legislation banning this kind of collection in the future."

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