Official: NSA doesn’t know when it spies on Americans

The U.S. intelligence community doesn’t have information on how often the NSA collects data on Americans, an official told a Senate panel Wednesday.

Though the NSA ensures that its targets aren’t U.S. persons, it doesn’t keep track of the nationalities of the people that targets communicate with, Robert Litt, general counsel at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, told the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy.

“It would be very resource-intensive” to try to identify the nationality of people whose data is collected when the NSA collects a target’s data, such as the recipients of a target’s email, Litt said. 

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If the NSA wanted to determine the nationality of a person communicating with a surveillance target, the agency would have to gather even more information about that person, Litt said.

“Doing the research … would perversely require a greater invasion of that person’s privacy.”

Subcommittee Chairman Al Fanken (D-Minn.) said the intelligence community should be able to determine how often the NSA collects Americans’ information.

“I think an estimate … can be made through statistical sampling,” he said.

Franken is the author of the Surveillance Transparency Act, which would allow companies receiving government requests for user data to publish more and more detailed information about the requests they receive.

“Isn’t it a bad thing that the NSA doesn’t even have a rough sense of how many Americans have had their information collected under a law … that specifically prohibits targeting Americans,” Franken asked.

Kevin Bankston, director of the Center for Democracy and Technology’s Free Expression Project, said the NSA’s inability to determine if it is incidentally spying on Americans “is, quite frankly, shocking.”

It “points to, perhaps, a need to recalibrate what we’re authorizing them to do,” he said.