Those who advocate for privacy in America just received an unexpected victory. The National Security Agency recently announced that it had stopped a form of surveillance that allowed it to collect digital communications without a warrant. This communication was collected if a person mentioned a foreign intelligence target in their messages. The decision to stop this previously secret activity of tapping into messages sent to or received from people believed to be living overseas came in spite of the insistence by U.S. official that it was both lawful and vital to national security.
The willingness to stop this practice is the most substantial change to the U.S. surveillance policy in years and comes in the midst of a contentious debate regarding digital privacy around the globe. The tension increased following the 2013 disclosure of widespread NSA spying activity by former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden.
“NSA will no longer collect certain internet communications that merely mention a foreign intelligence target,” the agency said in a statement. “Instead, NSA will limit such collection to internet communications that are sent directly to or from a foreign target.” The NSA also said it would delete the “vast majority” of internet data they collect under their surveillance program “to further protect the privacy of U.S. person communications.”
This new decision from the NSA is a part of the effort to deal with privacy compliance issues raised in 2011 by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. This is a secret organization that rules on the legality of intelligence operations. The NSA said that this court recently approved of the changes they are making.
Although the NSA is not permitted by law to conduct surveillance within the U.S., because they were collecting information in emails, texts and other communications that mentioned a foreign surveillance target, much of the collected information was wholly domestic.
Privacy advocates were surprised by the NSA’s announcement. Julian Sanchez, privacy and monitoring expert with the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, called the decision “very significant.” He said that this change was among the top priorities of surveillance reform among civil liberties groups. “Usually you identify a specific individual to scrutinize their content; this was scrutinizing everyone’s content to find mentions of an individual,” Sanchez said.
A U.S. government official very familiar with this issue said the change was motivated in part because of the increased scrutiny FISA has received due to the claims by President Trump that the Obama White House improperly spied on him and his associates.
What do you think about this recent announcement by the NSA? Do you stand with government officials who believe the practice is lawful and vital for national security, or do you stand with the privacy advocates?