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The NSA will stop reading American emails that mention intelligence targets

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A big win for surveillance critics

ethernet cables Photo by James Bareham / The Verge

The NSA has stopped collecting messages sent from US citizens that cross international borders and mention foreign intelligence targets, according to a new report in The New York Times. The controversial practice, made public by Edward Snowden in 2013, allowed the agency to collect emails and other messages that mention a foreign intelligence target, even if neither party is subject to surveillance and one of the parties is a US citizen (and thus subject to constitutional protections against unwarranted searches).

The NSA confirmed the change in a subsequent announcement, writing that “the Agency will stop the practice to reduce the chance that it would acquire communications of U.S. persons or others who are not in direct contact with a foreign intelligence target.”

In practical terms, this meant that including an email or phone number associated with a surveillance target (say, osamabinladen@gmail.com) in the body of an email could lead to the message being surfaced to NSA analysts.

According to the Times, the change came about last year after the NSA discovered analysts querying databases in violation of court guidelines set forth in 2011. Those violations triggered a broader review of NSA practices, which ultimately forced the NSA to discontinue the practice.

The move comes amid a broader debate over Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act, the legal authority used by the NSA to justify this collection. Signed into law in 2008, the law’s authorities are scheduled to expire at the end of this year unless renewed by Congress. Surveillance critics are hoping to significantly curtail those authorities, leading to significant debate in Congress.

Speaking on Twitter, Edward Snowden applauded the change, saying simply, “The truth changed everything.”

Update 3:09PM ET: Updated with NSA announcement.