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NSA dragnet mostly slurped innocents' traffic

Latest Snowden leak suggests indiscriminate retention

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NSA babbler Edward Snowden's latest drop alleges something that's been suspected ever since he went public during 2013: that spy agencies reach far beyond “persons-of-interest”, with data on ordinary internet users far outstripping that held over formal “targets”.

According to The Washington Post, the latest set of documents – provided to the Post only – “Nine of 10 account holders found in a large cache of intercepted conversations … were not the intended surveillance targets but were caught in a net the agency had cast for somebody else.”

Even data that the NSA has decided is irrelevant is retained by the agency, the story alleges.

The Post believes the documents it has seen were obtained as a result of America's 2008 amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Survey Act, and which authorities had previously said Snowden could not have accessed.

While not detailing just how many records Snowden allowed it to see, the Post alleges that the document drop indicated around 65,000 “masked” identities of US citizens or residents, plus around 900 email addresses that weren't masked and indicated strong links to citizens or residents.

Some of the data caught in the indiscriminate sweep turned out to be of possible value, with the WP claiming the documents indicate that communications tracked by the NSA led to the 2011 capture of Pakistani bomb-maker Muhammad Tahir Shahzad and 2002 Bali bombing suspect Umar Patek.

However, such communications were vastly outweighed by “startlingly intimate, even voyeuristic” records that had nothing to do with targets, covering “the daily lives of more than 10,000 account holders who were not targeted”.

Since other leaks have alleged that Five Eyes partners like the UK's GCHQ routinely tapped entire submarine fibre networks, it is hardly surprising that the overwhelming majority of data the NSA collected had nothing to do with its investigations.

Given that GCHQ's Optic Nerve programme turned out to include images of a very personal nature, it's hardly surprising that the documents Snowden worked through with the Post included men showing off their physiques and images in which “women model lingerie, leaning suggestively into a webcam or striking risqué poses in shorts and bikini tops”. ®

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

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