NSA data collection includes more non-targets than actual targets

Published July 6, 2014
An illustration picture shows the logo of the U.S. National Security Agency on the display of an iPhone — File photo by Reuters
An illustration picture shows the logo of the U.S. National Security Agency on the display of an iPhone — File photo by Reuters

For every target that the United States' National Security Agency (NSA) spies on there are nine non-targets who are spied upon as well and it was these tactics that helped the spy agency track down IED specialist and Al Qaeda facilitator Muhammad Tahir Shehzad and Umar Patek, an Al Qaeda-linked Indonesian militant in Pakistan, according to a Wall Street Journal report.

The WSJ report is based on a sample of data comprising of 22,000 surveillance reports collected by the spy agency between 2009 to 2012, which were obtained and shared with by fugitive US intelligence official Edward Snowden.

Though US intelligence officials, while maintaining their anonymity, claim that Snowden could not have had access to the FISA data, they still requested the WSJ to withhold certain sensitive data that could jeopardise ongoing operations.

However the claims of the US intelligence appear contradictory after looking at the data on Pakistani militant Tahir Shehzad which was shared by Snowden.

Giving further details the WSJ said that the surveillance reports contained around 160,000 individual intercepts from 11,400 unique accounts.

The report further says that out of the 11,400 accounts only 11 per cent were actual NSA targets whereas the rest of the 89 per cent were bystanders or non targets.

Even though most of the data is described as useless by the analysts but it's nonetheless retained, and appears to have a startlingly intimate, even voyeuristic quality at times.

In one exchange captured in the files and shared by the WSJ report, a young American asks a Pakistani friend in late 2009 what he thinks of the war in Afghanistan. The Pakistani replies that it is a religious struggle against 44 enemy states.

Startled, the American says “they, ah, they arent heavily participating . . . its like . . . in a football game, the other team is the enemy, not the other teams waterboy and cheerleaders.”

“No,” the Pakistani shoots back. “The other teams water boy is also an enemy. it is law of our religion.”

“Haha, sorry thats kind of funny,” the American replies.

The intercepts tell stories of love and heartbreak, illicit sexual liaisons, mental-health crises, political and religious conversions, financial anxieties and disappointed hopes.

The daily lives of more than 10,000 account holders who were not targeted are catalogued and recorded nevertheless as incidentals.

The NSA’s policy is to hold on to “incidentally” collected US content, even if it does not appear to contain foreign intelligence.

Elaborating on how these bystanders got entangled in the NSA spy web the report says that if a target entered an online chat room, the NSA collected the words and identities of every person who posted there, regardless of subject, as well as every person who simply “lurked,” reading passively what other people wrote.

“1 target, 38 others on there,” one analyst wrote. She collected data on them all.

In other cases, the NSA designated as its target the Internet Protocol (IP) address of a computer server used by hundreds of people.

In a June 26 “transparency report,” the Office of the Director of National Intelligence disclosed that 89,138 people were targets of last year’s collection under FISA Section 702.

At the ratio of incidental collection as observed by the WSJ in Snowden’s sample, the office’s figure would correspond to nearly 900,000 accounts, targeted or not, under surveillance.

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