Report: Most tracked by NSA are not targets

The vast majority of people surveyed and tracked by the National Security Agency are not suspected terrorists and foreign agents specifically targeted by the agency, according to months-long analysis.

Instead, nearly nine out of 10 people caught up in the spy agency’s web are innocent Americans and foreigners whose information was “incidentally” intercepted. 

The new analysis from The Washington Post released over the weekend will provide fire for reformers who have criticized the NSA for spying on Americans without a warrant through a “backdoor” program.

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Among the files caught up in the surveillance are detailed accounts of people’s love lives, families, religion and other personal details.

The Obama administration has said it cannot calculate how many Americans’ data is collected under the NSA program targeting foreigners, but the Post’s analysis of thousands of intercepted communications provided by leaker Edward Snowden found that nearly half were linked to U.S. citizens or residents. Messages to or from Americans are required by law to be “minimized” or made anonymous.

One program targeting foreigners, which was first revealed by Snowden last summer, allows the NSA to obtain email messages, social media posts and other communications from major Web companies like Google, Yahoo and Microsoft. Another nabs “upstream” data from the cables that make up the backbone of the Internet.

Both operations are authorized under a section of the 2008 update of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and have come under fire from some privacy and civil liberties advocates.

The operations got a major boost last week, however, when a government privacy watchdog largely endorsed many of the NSA’s programs under the law as "appropriately focuse[d]."

People who are not targets of the NSA can have their information collected by communicating with someone who the agency is targeting as well as merely being in the same chat room or working from the same Internet protocol (IP) address, which can ensnare hundreds of people working on the same computer server. 

The Obama administration tried to play down the report this weekend by noting that it had previously made clear that “incidental” data collection was inevitable.

“We target only valid foreign intelligence targets under that authority, and the most that you could conclude from these news reports is that each valid foreign intelligence target talks to an average of nine people,” Office of the Director of National Intelligence general counsel Robert Litt told the New York Times in an interview.