The analysts at the NSA spent years gathering tens of thousands of emails between US citizens in violation of the US constitution, as a component of a single (discontinued) data slurping program, the agency has revealed.
These emails were from people with no direct connection to terrorism, according to a secret opinion from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISC) court that was declassified by the NSA on Wednesday. The court found that this data gathering violated the Fourth Amendment of the constitution, which enshrines the right of people to be free of "unreasonable searches and seizures".
"Each year, NSA's upstream collection likely results in the acquisition of roughly two to ten thousand discrete wholly domestic communications that are neither to, from, nor about a targeted selector, as well as tens of thousands of other communications that are to or from a United States person or a person in the United States but that are neither to, from, nor about a targeted selector," according to the FISC court 2011 opinion.
The document was declassified after legal action by privacy activists the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
The opinion ultimately saw the court not authorize the continued data slurp due to worries over violation of the US constitution's Fourth Amendment, and makes for an interesting read. The document states that the NSA told the government in a letter that "NSA's "upstream collection" of Internet communications includes the acquisition of entire "transaction[s]"."
"Such transactions may contain data that is wholly unrelated to the tasked selector, including the full content of discrete communications that are not to, from, or about the facility tasked for collection."
The opinion stresses that the NSA performs this data slurp of US communications due to technical limitations in how it hoovers up the data.
"The court now understands, however, that NSA has acquired, is acquiring, and, if the certifications and procedures now before the Court are approved, will continue to acquire, "tens of thousands of wholly domestic communications", the court writes.
Although in this case the FISC application was not authorized, this will prove of little reassurance, as the verdict concludes that the government had not been truthful with the secret court.
"The government's submissions make clear not only that the NSA has been acquiring Internet transactions since before the Court's approval of the section 702 certification in 2008, but also that NSA seeks to continue the collection of Internet transactions."
In the past NSA bigwig Keith Alexander has sought to reassure the privacy-paranoid that "our people have to take courses and pass exams to use this data". ®