In response to the Snowden revelations, U.S. security officials maintained its practices were both lawful and vital to national security. Friday’s announcement heralds the most significant change in surveillance policy in years.
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 agency also announced it would delete the “vast majority” of internet data collected under the surveillance program “to further protect the privacy of U.S. person communications.”
Sources versed in the policy change said the decision came in response to privacy compliance issues raised in 2011 by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, a secret court created to rule on the legality of intelligence operations. NSA noted that the court recently approved the policy change.
Even though the NSA generally is not permitted to conduct surveillance within the United States, the data collection in question went after messages mentioning a surveillance target, even in cases in which the message was neither to nor from that person.
The security agency will continue to collect communications directly involving intelligence targets. Because that type of collection sometimes resulted in surveillance of emails, texts and other communications that were wholly domestic, the policy change was determined as necessary to remain within the law.
Privacy advocates were surprised by Friday’s announcement because they believed the former practice was overly broad and violated protection against unreasonable searches under the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Julian Sanchez, a privacy and surveillance expert with the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, called the decision ‘very significant’ and 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.”
Although pleased with the announced changes, some privacy proponents continue to advocate for additional reforms to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). Section 702, the part of the law under which the controversial surveillance occurred, is due to expire at the end of this year unless Congress reauthorizes it.
A U.S. government official familiar with the matter said the change was motivated in part to ensure that Section 702 is renewed before it sunsets on Dec. 31, 2017.”
As recently as last year, The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, a government watchdog, was told by the NSA that changes to “about” collection were not “practical at this time.”
The NSA’s collection policy regarding “about” information came under more intense scrutiny after it was claimed that then presidential candidate Donald Trump and the Trump campaign had phone calls monitored and collected under the questionable practice.