There is increasing concern among privacy advocates about the extent of surveillance reach by the National Security Agency (News - Alert) (NSA).
A new report said the reach covers some 75 percent of Internet communications in the United States – far more than many thought – and it apparently goes beyond what the program originally intended.
The NSA has limited authority to conduct such surveillance on Americans.
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Filtering programs were supposed to sort communications starting or ending in foreign nations. Some of the content being collected and retained by the NSA could include communications coming from Americans, which is sent to other Americans, according to news reports.
It was also reported that the NSA sometimes keeps the content of e-mails and goes through domestic phone calls. The filtering is done with the ordered cooperation of telecommunication companies, The Wall Street Journal said. Among the companies involved are AT&T and Verizon (News - Alert).
One program, code-named Blarney, collects information and was set up with AT&T, unnamed sources told The Journal.
Filtering is now believed to occur at a dozen locations at U.S. Internet junctions, The Journal reported. The filtering technology uses algorithms.
According to the report, the NSA has been asking telecommunication companies to send streams of Internet traffic, which are likely to carry content related to foreign intelligence.
Verizon “has placed intercepts in the largest U.S. metropolitan areas,” The Journal said. “Not all telecommunications providers handle the government demands the same way…According to a U.S. official, lawyers at telecom companies serve as checks on what the NSA receives.”
"The providers are independently deciding what would be responsive," one unnamed official told The Journal.
Meanwhile, the NSA has defended its overall practices, saying surveillance programs have prevented acts of terrorism. NSA spokeswoman Vanee Vines said that if American communications are "incidentally collected during NSA's lawful signals intelligence activities," the NSA will follow "minimization procedures that are approved by the U.S. attorney general and designed to protect the privacy of United States persons," The Journal reported.
Supporters of the NSA also point to Congressional oversight and the oversight by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
When the NSA asks for data streams that could include domestic communications, there has been friction sometimes between providers and government officials, The Journal said. It is not always clear how to define foreign communications, The Journal added.
Many tech companies have been named in the Journal’s recent story. The filtering system uses technology from Boeing Co.'s Narus subsidiary. Technology also comes from Cisco Systems (News - Alert) and Juniper Networks, according to The Journal.
It was also reported that during the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and NSA arranged with Qwest (News - Alert) Communications to use intercept equipment.
“It monitored the content of all email and text communications in the Salt Lake City area,” The Journal reported.
In addition, Paul Kouroupas, a former executive at Global Crossing (News - Alert) (owned by Level 3 Communications) and other telecoms, said NSA programs “depend on telecommunications companies and the government policing the system themselves,” The Journal said.
"There's technically and physically nothing preventing a much broader surveillance," he told The Journal. Other telecom companies declined to comment on The Journal’s story.
Privacy advocates want to see more protections in place. In fact, more than 100 organizations, such as Privacy International, Access, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), joined in an effort to see less controversial communications surveillance methods.
Edited by Alisen Downey
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