Privacy Law

NSA broke privacy rules thousands of times in one-year period, Snowden leak reveals


An audit leaked by Edward Snowden to the Washington Post reveals that the National Security Agency collected or accessed legally protected communications 2,776 times in a one-year period at facilities in the Washington, D.C., area.

Most of the errors were unintended and involved surveillance of Americans or foreign intelligence targets in the United States, the Washington Post reports. The New York Times also has a report.

Most of the errors appeared to stem from travel to the United States by foreigners whose cellphones were being wiretapped, the Times says. A warrant is required when the individual comes to this country. One in 10 errors were due to typographical errors by an analyst who collected information about U.S. phone calls or emails as a result, according to the Washington Post.

In one instance in 2008, the Post says, a programming error confused the U.S. area code 202 for 20, the international dialing code for Egypt. As a result, call information from Washington, D.C., was collected.

The number of Americans affected is unclear since the audit count does not typically disclose that number. In one revealed incident in February 2012, however, the NSA retained about 3,000 files, each containing an undisclosed number of telephone call records, despite a surveillance court order for their destruction.

The Post links to the May 2012 audit’s executive summary and provides definitions for unclear references. The story also includes information from other top-secret documents.

The Post cites one case in which the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which oversees NSA surveillance, did not learn about a new collection method until it was operating for several months. The court ruled it unconstitutional.

An NSA newsletter provided the first public details of the 2011 court decision, which found a Fourth Amendment violation in collection of “Multiple Communications Transactions” from fiber optic networks in the United States. The transactions commingled U.S. and foreign emails.

A senior, anonymous NSA official who spoke to the Post with White House permission said the agency tries to identify and address problems as early as possible. “We’re a human-run agency operating in a complex environment with a number of different regulatory regimes, so at times we find ourselves on the wrong side of the line,” the official said.

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