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Surprise! NSA's first ever 'transparency' 'report' is anything but

Spies do spying ... and dictionary rewriting, too

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The US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has published the NSA's first "transparency report", revealing the number of "targets" spied on by the agency.

Its definition of the word transparency, however, makes the data somewhat hard to fathom.

"Within the Intelligence Community, the term 'target' has multiple meanings," the report [PDF], published today, notes.

"For example, 'target' could be an individual person, a group, or an organization composed of multiple individuals or a foreign power that possesses or is likely to communicate foreign intelligence information that the U.S. government is authorized to acquire by the above-referenced laws."

Applying this logic, the NSA, in 2013, issued just one order under Section 702 of FISA, but that allowed the surveillance of 89,138 targets – be they individuals, companies or nation states. It also issued 131 orders under FISA's tap and trace provisions, affecting 319 targets, and 1,767 FISA orders based on probable cause that were used against 1,144 targets.

Title five of FISA allows the intelligence agencies to search for business records, including the bulk collection of metadata from US mobile phone records. The NSA made 178 such searches, which affected 172 "individuals, entities, or foreign powers."

When going through vast piles of metadata, the NSA approved 423 search selectors and 248 people "known or presumed US persons" under the business records search procedures.

The report also covers the issuance of national security letters, which are subpoenas from the FBI that – pre-Snowden and the rebellion by technology companies – recipients weren't allowed to mention they'd received.

Last year federal authorities issued 19,212 national security letters and 38,832 requests for information. That's a colossal amount of penmanship, and also slightly concerning, given the limited data we've had from firms like Google and Apple.

Cupertino and Mountain View reported getting between zero and 999 national security letters in their latest transparency reports. That suggests there are an awful lot of firms getting served with these secretive orders. ®

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