The latest documents to be released from the Snowden archive show that the NSA was secretly authorized to carry out warrantless surveillance on US internet traffic in the name of cybersecurity.
Two memos released by ProPublica in cooperation with The New York Times show that in May 2012, the US Justice Department authorized the NSA to monitor domestic internet traffic as part of investigations into foreign hacking attacks. That authority was later extended to allow monitoring of IP addresses and "cybersignatures."
A leaked slide deck explains how a lot of this stuff can be collected via the PRISM program, but that "thousands of non-PRISM domains, DNR collection, cyber signatures and IP addresses" were fair game. It added that authorities would like Dropbox to become a PRISM "partner."
All of this can be done without a warrant under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which allows blanket collection of emails, phone calls, and internet traffic from the 6.81 billion people on the planet who aren't members of the Land of the Free. The data is kept for five years, or indefinitely if national security is involved.
In another Snowden document, NSA states that it can carry out this monitoring from a variety of "chokepoints" on US telecommunications networks, and adds that it also shares this data with the FBI's Engineering Research Facility in Quantico, VA.
Originally, the internet surveillance authority only covered hacking attacks from foreign governments. But in a leaked 2012 memo, the NSA complained that this created a "targeting gap" because of "lack of attribution to a foreign government or terrorist organization," and it requested the right to surveil anyone who could be described as a hacker.
Such surveillance does require legal permission, and the NSA submits requests to the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. But while FISA has signed off on 33,000 warrants to date, it has only rejected 11.
In a public statement in 2014, the NSA confirmed that it now has Section 702 approval to investigate "cybersecurity" targets. How wide a remit that gives it is unknown. A lot of security researchers will rightly be concerned that they are on a list, but the term "hacker" is so broad – and the court so lenient – that the surveillance could include an awful lot of people.
"It should come as no surprise that the U.S. government gathers intelligence on foreign powers that attempt to penetrate US networks and steal the private information of US. citizens and companies," Brian Hale, the spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, told The New York Times, adding that "targeting overseas individuals engaging in hostile cyberactivities on behalf of a foreign power is a lawful foreign intelligence purpose." ®