The NSA's data collection programs go back further — and cover more territory — than previously reported, according to a Wall Street Journal report out Tuesday.
Here's the Cliff's Notes, since we've had a lot of these lately: According to the Journal's sources, the NSA started setting up internet intercepts (specifically, the Blarney program) before 2001, based on arrangements with foreign internet providers. Those intercepts expanded their reach rapidly after the September 11 attacks, to the point where the laws laid out to limit the NSA's surveillance powers are applied with astonishingly broad parameters. And it looks like that happened pretty quickly. For instance, the agency monitored the communications of the entire Salt Lake City area for about 6 months:
For the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, officials say, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and NSA arranged with Qwest Communications International Inc. to use intercept equipment for a period of less than six months around the time of the event. It monitored the content of all email and text communications in the Salt Lake City area.
The agency's partnerships with telecommunications companies allow the NSA to potentially access to 75 percent of all American internet traffic. And according to the Journal, the agency can't seem to completely enforce its own limitations on their programs. While the NSA's data mining programs focus on foreign intelligence, it's "inevitable," the paper writes, that U.S. some communications — both "metadata" and content — end up stored in the agency's servers.
The report also gives some new details on how the agency "filters" data: they use algorithms, guided by analysts, who try to make the filters as precise as possible. Some telecommunications companies, the Journal explains, provide a deeper level of filtering: they'll only allow the government access to clearly "foreign" communications, i.e. ones with foreign IP addresses. But the filters aren't perfect. And, the NSA has apparently asked for data streams that are "more likely" to include strictly domestic communications. While those requests cause "friction," according to the Journal's sources, some companies do comply with those requests.
NSA spokesperson Vanee Vines told the paper that the NSA uses "minimization procedures that are approved by the U.S. attorney general and designed to protect the privacy of United States persons," in order to prevent domestic communications from being stored. But the Journal's report, echoing a series of previous examples, argues that despite the intentions of the laws in place to keep the NSA honest, the reality of the agency's data collection programs seem to evade thorough oversight.