According to latest declassified documents, the National Security Agency (NSA) unlawfully gathered thousands of e-mails and other electronic communications between Americans with no connection to terrorism annually over three years.
The U.S. Government on Wednesday released a secret court ruling that found the NSA’s surveillance sweep unconstitutional. It found how the spy agency had been tapping data from the Internet in an effort to collect foreign intelligence.
The documents were released after the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EEF), an advocacy group based in San Francisco, filed a lawsuit to a Freedom of Information Act.
The redacted 85-page opinion by the chief judge of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court states that until 2011, the NSA’s own calculations suggest the agency may have collected up to 56,000 "wholly domestic" communications by Americans each year.
The agency’s remit allowed it to gather and store communications with a foreign element that passes through the US connections but not those which are exclusively from within the US.
Slamming the NSA for misleading them on what exactly it was harboring, John D. Bates, the then chief judge of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court wrote in his October 3, 2011 opinion, "For the first time, the government has now advised the court that the volume and nature of the information it has been collecting is fundamentally different from what the court had been led to believe.
"The court is troubled that the government's revelations regarding NSA's acquisition of Internet transactions mark the third instance in less than three years in which the government has disclosed a substantial misrepresentation regarding the scope of a major collection programme.”
The NSA has changed its policies to avert the same mistake happening again, though it took the agency until 2012 to delete any of the domestic content it had unlawfully stored.
The agency is trying to assure observers that any irregularity was unintentional, not deliberate. “This was not in any respect an intentional or wholesale breach of privacy of American persons,” general council for the Office of the Director of the NSA Robert S. Litt III said today.
The privacy advocates are in no mood to be convinced. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has made it clear that they will continue to pressurize the US government to assign specific blame to those who were aware of the illegal surveillance taking place.
“EFF will keep fighting until the NSA’s domestic surveillance program is reined in,” the EFF‘s Mark Rumold said today, “federal surveillance laws are amended to prevent these kinds of abuse from happening in the future, and government officials are held accountable for their actions.”