Report: NSA broke privacy rules thousands of times

The National Security Agency broke privacy rules or illegally overstepped its authority thousands of times to obtain communications of U.S. citizens and foreigners in the U.S., according to a report in The Washington Post. 

The report is based on an internal audit and other documents leaked to the news organization by Edward Snowden. The audit found the NSA obtained private communications thousands of times without proper authorization since Congress authorized the agency’s surveillance methods in 2008.

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Incidents of overreach occurred because of typographical errors, and include communications intercepted without proper authorization or because the agency failed to implement proper compliance safeguards to prevent unlawful surveillance, according to the paper’s analysis.

The report counts 2,776 such incidents between May 2011 and May 2012, most of which were unintended intercepts of communications. The most serious incident in the report “included a violation of a court order and unauthorized use of data about more than 3,000 Americans and green-card holders.”

A spokesperson for the NSA, speaking anonymously and with permission from the White House, said the violations were only a small percentage when compared to the agency’s total output, and said the mistakes were the result of a “human-run agency operating in a complex environment.”

“You can look at it as a percentage of our total activity that occurs each day,” the spokesperson told the newspaper. “You look at a number in absolute terms that looks big, and when you look at it in relative terms, it looks a little different.”

“We’re a human-run agency operating in a complex environment with a number of different regulatory regimes, so at times we find ourselves on the wrong side of the line,” the spokesperson continued, adding that the issues were identified and corrected “at the earliest possible moment.”

It’s the latest round of revelations to come from documents obtained by Snowden, a government contractor who was granted asylum in Russia last month. The U.S. is seeking his return to face charges of espionage.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the first she heard of the report was when the Post contacted her for comment.

“We can and should do more to independently verify that the NSA’s operations are appropriate and its reports of compliance incidents are accurate,” she told the paper.