The US National Security Agency (NSA) may have been intercepting up to 56,000 completely innocent American emails each year between 2008 and 2011, it has been revealed yesterday.

The information surfaced after once-classified documents had been released by US intelligence agencies in a bid to reconcile with the global community outraged by the revelations regarding the extensive American surveillance programme made early this year.

The documents describe conclusions of a secret court, held in 2011, discussing the eavesdropping programme. According to the documents, the court condemned the undertaking and said it represented a direct breach of US law and constitution.

US officials said the documents show that intelligence data collection programmes intruding on the privacy of US citizens have been identified and corrected long before the actual scandal.

Nevertheless, Judge John Bates of the surveillance court wrote in the classified documents that activities of the NSA had been somewhat disconcerting.

“The court is troubled that the government’s revelations regarding the NSA’s acquisition of Internet transactions mark the third instance in less than three years in which the government has disclosed a substantial misrepresentation regarding the scope of a major collection programme,” Bates wrote.

More specifically, Bates said in an October 2011 ruling that the court had concluded that the process that resulted in improper collections of the tens of thousands of emails was “in some respects, deficient on statutory and constitutional grounds.”

The 56,000 illegally intercepted emails each year have been said to be just a tip of an iceberg. The programme reportedly targets about 250 million emails and, in a separate programme, keeps record of millions of phone calls made in the USA.

Some 9 per cent of these emails – less than 20 million – are collected via cable links belonging to telecommunications companies, while the rest is gathered via Internet service providers at the moment of them being sent or received.

Intelligence officials have defended the practice, saying it’s difficult to avoid collecting a lot of data unintentionally while searching for signs of threat.

“This is not an egregious overreaching by a greedy agency seeking to spy on Americans. This is a technological problem that resulted in an inadvertent collection of a relatively small number of US person communications,” a senior intelligence official said.

Contrary to popular belief, the agency hasn’t been targeting emails containing specified words – such as the ‘bomb’. Instead, it has been focusing on addresses of senders and recipients.

An unnamed official explained that most of the unintentionally collected emails have been caught in the net because the programme captures only a screenshot of the person’s webmail account, showing sent and received emails.

“For technological reasons NSA was not capable … and still is not capable of breaking those down into their individual components,” the official said.

According to the yesterday-released documents, NSA started taking steps to prevent intercepting innocent emails soon after discovering the glitch.

“When you look at these documents taken as a whole, you’ll get a sense for the really effective self-policing that goes on at NSA,” an intelligence official said. “Any time you have a large technologically complex operation that involves thousands of people, there will mistakes, there will be errors.”

Since discovering the inadvertent collection programme, intelligence officials said, the NSA has tightened its procedures for spotting and getting rid of data on Americans that was collected without proper authority.


(Engineering and Technology Magazine)