The National Security Agency is searching through the contents of Americans' text and email messages sent into and out of the country for information on foreign citizens under surveillance, according to a new report.
The New York Times revealed Wednesday that the NSA's surveillance goes beyond intercepting the messages of Americans who are in direct contact with foreigners under surveillance. The agency also searches through communications of those who mention or are linked to foreign terror suspects.
While government officials have acknowledged that the agency combs through troves of data from overseas, the fact that it is searching through the contents of Americans' cross-border communications without warrants adds another element to the debate over whether the agency has infringed on the privacy of American citizens.
Officials said that the cross-border data mining was authorized by the 2008 FISA Amendments Act, in which Congress approved surveillance on American soil without warrants as long as the “target” was a noncitizen overseas.
An NSA spokeswoman told the Times the agency's activities were legal and not intended to spy on American citizens but to gather intelligence on “foreign powers and their agents, foreign organizations, foreign persons or international terrorists.”
“In carrying out its signals intelligence mission, NSA collects only what it is explicitly authorized to collect,” said NSA spokeswoman Judith A. Emmel. “Moreover, the agency’s activities are deployed only in response to requirements for information to protect the country and its interests.”
According to the report, the NSA copies and searches through communications that cross U.S. borders for keywords. Officials said the search terms were “very precise” to minimize privacy intrusions on innocent Americans. Those emails and texts that are flagged are reviewed, and irrelevant communications are deleted.