Privacy watchdog: NSA foreign surveillance didn’t collect 'bulk’ data


A government civil-liberties watchdog on Wednesday formally endorsed the National Security Agency’s online surveillance of foreign citizens, saying it didn’t involve the “bulk collection” of Americans’ own personal data.

The five-member Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board’s (PCLOB) unanimous report called the NSA’s surveillance legal, effective and largely protective of Americans’ privacy. 


“It is not a bulk collection program,” PCLOB Chairman David Medine said at the meeting.

Instead, the program is “large but targeted,” he told reporters, since it relies on specific “selectors” to go after suspected terrorists or foreign agents.

“No information comes in until you have targeted a foreign person overseas,” added Patricia Wald, another board member.

“What you get is American collections coming in, but only if they are in communication with that [targeted] person,” she added, while noting the data collection “still raises problems."

The NSA’s program authorized under Section 702 of the 2008 update to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act allows U.S. spies to snoop on the communications of foreigners “reasonably believed” to be outside the country.

Federal agents use that section of the law to pick up information from major Internet sites such as Facebook, Google and Yahoo under the NSA's PRISM program, as well as to tap into the “backbone” of the Internet to gather “upstream” information.

That program is different than the NSA’s bulk collection of information about Americans’ phone calls, which has been the agency's most contested operation and is currently under debate in Congress. The PCLOB said earlier this year that the domestic phone records program was illegal.

Though the PCLOB largely supported the surveillance operations, Medine said that some aspects come “right up to the line of constitutionality” by unintentionally collecting information on Americans and targeting emails based on their content, rather than who sent or received them. 

The board included a list of 10 recommendations in its report, which could be adopted without action from Congress.

Those are “relatively slight changes at the margins of the programs,” according to Elisabeth Collins Cook, a member of the board and former Republican staffer on the Senate Judiciary Committee. 

“We have seen no evidence of a back door, so our recommendations are designed to make sure one is not built,” she added.

Privacy advocates were disappointed at the new report, which Open Technology Institute policy director Kevin Bankston called a “dud.”

Even worse, he said, it comes just weeks after the House approved a more robust measure to require warrants for searches that involve Americans.

“The fact that the board has endorsed such warrantless rummaging through our communications, just weeks after the House of Representatives voted almost three to one to defund the NSA's ‘backdoor’ searches of Americans' data, is a striking disappointment,” he said in a statement.