Docs: NSA secretly replaced program that sweeps up email data

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A federal effort to sweep up records about Americans’ emails was secretly replaced before it came to light in 2013, according to an inspector general report revealed through a public records lawsuit on Friday.

According to the National Security Agency’s (NSA) watchdog report, the email records program was destroyed by December of 2011, but had been replaced with other systems that “can satisfy certain foreign intelligence requirements” that the original program “was designed to meet.”

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The inspector general’s report was obtained by The New York Times following a lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act. 

The disclosure appeared to confirm the suspicions of privacy advocates, who have warned that the NSA has taken advantage of a range of intelligence laws to conduct broad surveillance.

After the report was published on Friday, American Civil Liberties Union legislative counsel Neema Singh Guliani called it “yet another piece of evidence demonstrating the need for more comprehensive surveillance reform.”

The NSA’s email records program is separate from its collection of metadata about Americans’ phone calls, which is set to expire later this month under legislation passed by Congress this summer.

After the email records program came to light in 2013, the government said that it had been shut down in 2011.

However, the NSA merely switched to other legal authorities to get similar information, the inspector general report indicated, including a controversial legal section that critics have called “backdoor” surveillance on Americans.

The law — known as Section 702 of the 2008 update to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act — is targeted at foreigners, but lets the NSA sweep up information about Americans as long as it is “incidental.” Because of the global nature of Internet cable systems, however, critics warn that the spy agency’s ability to gather Americans’ information is virtually limitless.