There's a story in the New York Times today that details how the NSA hasn't just been tracking communications to and from (potential) foreigners of interest — it's actually tracking all emails and text messages that potentially mention these targets. That dragnet just got a lot wider. This is the actualisation of the tired and at one time absurd "oops better not say bomb on email" jokes.
I know what you're thinking: Another day, another set of revelations about how the NSA has crept even deeper into our private lives than we thought the day before. And it's true. This changes the game a little bit, though.
Up until now, it was understood that only Americans who were in direct contact with foreigners under surveillance were also subject to the NSA's snooping. Now, however, all it takes is one stray reference or mention of a foreigner under surveillance in an email or a text message that crosses the border to get on the NSA's radar. This represents a pretty significant expansion of the scale of the program.
What you also have to consider is the fact that the NSA's systems for spotting these mentions is not perfect. The Times cites computer scientists who say "it would be difficult to systematically search the contents of the communications without first gathering nearly all cross-border text-based data." So they're grabbing all the data and putting it together like a puzzle. Great. Are we going to learn that the NSA has some crazy software that lets them collect and search through nearly everything we do on the internet? Oh wait, that's actually happening. We learned all about it last week. But hey, as The New Yorker's Matt Buchanan points out, "According to the NSA, as you long as you delete data you didn't actually 'collect' it."
The NSA maintains that everything it's doing is completely legal and totally authorised. And they're right! Depending on exactly how you measure it, the NSA's had a veritable carte blanche to monitor the communications of Americans who were potentially in contact with foreign targets without a warrant. Now we know that anybody that even possibly mentioned these foreigners was also susceptible to surveillance, without a warrant. It seems shocking to us now that all of the dirty details are coming out. But really, we should've seen this coming. Like, years ago. [NYT]