NSA denies having 'unfettered access' to 75 percent of US Internet traffic

The Obama administration is denying news reports that the National Security Agency has "unfettered access" to 75 percent of all U.S. Internet traffic.

In a joint statement released late Wednesday, the NSA and the Director of National Intelligence said that media reports based on a recent Wall Street Journal article "provide an inaccurate and misleading picture of NSA's collection programs."

"The NSA does not sift through and have unfettered access to 75% of the United States' online communications," the agencies said.

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But the statement does not address the accuracy of The Wall Street Journal article itself — only the other media reports based on it.

In their statement, the agencies said that the NSA "touches" 1.6 percent of world's Internet traffic and only looks at .00004 percent of it. 

They said the NSA obtains information based on "specific identifiers," such as email addresses and telephone numbers of foreigners. If the surveillance involves a person in the U.S., the NSA must follow court-approved privacy protection procedures.   

On Tuesday, the Journal reported that the NSA has the "capacity to reach" about 75 percent of all U.S. traffic.

The report, which was based on interviews with current and former government officials, said the NSA filters through communications at more than a dozen locations at major Internet junctions around the country. 

The program is designed to look for communications that originate or end abroad or happen to pass through the United States. But the broad scope of the surveillance means it is likely that the NSA is intercepting and collecting wholly domestic communications, according to the Journal.

The data collection is based on Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which allows the NSA to obtain, with a court’s approval, the contents of phone and email conversations if there is a "foreign intelligence purpose" and the target is "reasonably believed" to be outside of the country. The provision does not allow the agency to spy on communications that are wholly within the United States.

"The collection under FISA section 702 is the most significant tool in the NSA collection arsenal for the detection, identification, and disruption of terrorist threats to the U.S. and around the world," the agencies said. 

The administration released the statement hours after declassifying a 2011 court opinion that found that the NSA had violated Americans' constitutional rights for three years by over collecting information. The NSA said the collection was inadvertent and that it has since adopted more stringent privacy protection practices.