How NSA Bypassed the Fourth Amendment for 3 Years

On October 3, 2011, the FISA Court deemed some of the NSA’s collections to violate the Fourth Amendment. Since Ron Wyden first declassified vague outlines of that ruling a year ago, we’ve been trying to sort through precisely what practice that decision curtailed.

A new WSJ story not only expands on previous descriptions of the practice.

The systems operate like this: The NSA asks telecom companies to send it various streams of Internet traffic it believes most likely to contain foreign intelligence. This is the first cut of the data.

These requests don’t ask for all Internet traffic. Rather, they focus on certain areas of interest, according to a person familiar with the legal process. “It’s still a large amount of data, but not everything in the world,” this person says.

The second cut is done by NSA. It briefly copies the traffic and decides which communications to keep based on what it calls “strong selectors”—say, an email address, or a large block of computer addresses that correspond to an organization it is interested in. In making these decisions, the NSA can look at content of communications as well as information about who is sending the data.

But it reveals the illegal program continued for 3 years, during which the telecoms and NSA simply policed (or did not police) themselves.

For example, a recent Snowden document showed that the surveillance court ruled that the NSA had set up an unconstitutional collection effort. Officials say it was an unintentional mistake made in 2008 when it set filters on programs like these that monitor Internet traffic; NSA uncovered the inappropriate filtering in 2011 and reported it.

[snip]

Paul Kouroupas, a former executive at Global Crossing Ltd. and other telecom companies responsible for security and government affairs, says the checks and balances in the NSA programs depend on telecommunications companies and the government policing the system themselves. “There’s technically and physically nothing preventing a much broader surveillance,” he says.

The entire WSJ article (and an accompanying explainer) is actually quite polite to the NSA, suggesting that minimization protects Americans better than the plain letter of the procedures do, remaining silent about NSA’s refusal to count how many Americans get sucked up in this, and focusing on terrorism more than the other applications of this. That’s not meant as a criticism; they got the story out, after all!

Most of all, though, it doesn’t question the claim that NSA set the filters too broadly in 2008 unintentionally.

Remember, those filters got set in the wake of the FISA Amendments Act. The telecoms doing the initial pass had just gotten immunity. While I think it possible that one of the telecoms got cold feet and that led to the FISA Court’s discovery of a practice that had been going on 3 years, I’m highly skeptical that the timing of the immunity and the overly broad filters was randomly coincidental.

I think we’re getting closer and closer to the iceberg Ron Wyden and Mark Udall warned us about.

Tweet about this on Twitter0Share on Reddit0Share on Facebook0Google+6Email to someone

15 Responses to How NSA Bypassed the Fourth Amendment for 3 Years

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
  • 11
  • 12
  • 13
  • 14
  • 15
Emptywheel Twitterverse
emptywheel @DanaHoule Hey now, even those who escaped the Empire in 1916 still use Cellotape!
14mreplyretweetfavorite
emptywheel @TimothyS Nice. I was waiting for them to say they were just teaching Sony "learned helplessness."
53mreplyretweetfavorite
JimWhiteGNV We tortured some folks. So? #2014in5words
13hreplyretweetfavorite
emptywheel @billmon1 No, really, the punch line is Evan Bayh. He's actually QUOTED in the torture report ... being a fucking moron.
13hreplyretweetfavorite
emptywheel RT @AlecMacGillis: When a player gets multiple concussions, knows what it means, but can't quit. Great @KVanValkenburg on Wes Welker: http:…
13hreplyretweetfavorite
emptywheel BREAKINGNOTBREAKING Evan Bayh is a chump. http://t.co/intM2rUXoC
13hreplyretweetfavorite
JimWhiteGNV Shocking! Oh, wait... RT @nytimesworld: Panel to Advise Against Penalty for C.I.A.’s Computer Search http://t.co/MqXeS8DWwV
13hreplyretweetfavorite
emptywheel @empiricalerror LOL. Wung it.
13hreplyretweetfavorite
JimWhiteGNV Tebow keeping it classy. In WalMart ads now. Sheesh.
13hreplyretweetfavorite
JimWhiteGNV Hmm. William Broad asks why silicon content of anthrax attacks not investigated better. http://t.co/kVd8i55k0V See https://t.co/29vuNgukNV
14hreplyretweetfavorite
emptywheel @GregoryMcNeal My bacon comes from a farm too small for a drone to find. #ObscurityInBacon
14hreplyretweetfavorite
JimWhiteGNV RT @emptywheel: When certain Tweeps or certain Gray Science Journos write about a topic it tends to raise suspicion, not allay it.
14hreplyretweetfavorite