NSA Is Changing Some of the Information It Collects

The National Security Agency campus in Fort Meade, Md.

The National Security Agency campus in Fort Meade, Md. Patrick Semansky/AP File Photo

The agency says it’s stopping the controversial practice of collecting Americans’ emails that mention foreign intelligence targets.

The National Security Agency says it will no longer collect Americans’ email and text communications that mention foreign intelligence targets, perhaps the most controversial aspect of the warrantless-wiretapping program.

Here’s part of NSA’s statement:

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 U.S. persons or others who are not in direct contact with one of the Agency's foreign intelligence targets.

The U.S. intelligence community uses Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to conduct surveillance on foreign targets outside the country. Critics of the practice of intercepting the electronic correspondence of Americans maintained it violated the Fourth Amendment’s ban on unreasonable searches. Its supporters maintained, however, it was vital to national-security interests, and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court called the practice lawful.

The New York Times first reported Friday’s development. More from the Times on the reason for the change in policy:

The N.S.A. made the change to resolve problems it was having complying with special rules imposed by the surveillance court in 2011 to protect Americans’ privacy. For technical reasons, the agency ended up collecting messages sent and received domestically as a byproduct of such surveillance, the officials said.

The problem stemmed from certain bundled messages that internet companies sometimes packaged together and transmitted as a unit. If even one of them had a foreign target’s email address somewhere in it, all were sucked in.

After the N.S.A. brought that issue to the court’s attention in 2011, a judge ruled that it violated the Fourth Amendment, which bars unreasonable searches. The agency then proposed putting the bundled messages in a special repository to which analysts, searching through intercepts to write intelligence reports, would generally not have access. The court permitted that type of collection to continue with that restriction.

But last year, officials said, the N.S.A. discovered that analysts were querying the bundled messages in a way that did not comply with those rules. The agency brought the matter to the court’s attention, resulting in a delay in reauthorizing the broader warrantless surveillance program until the agency proposed ceasing this collection practice.

NSA, in its statement, also said it will “delete the vast majority of previously acquired upstream internet communications as soon as practicable.”