NSA to stop collecting Americans' emails, texts about foreign surveillance targets

NSA to stop collecting Americans' emails, texts about foreign surveillance targets
The National Security Agency says it will halt the warrantless collection of emails and texts sent to recipients overseas that mention a foreign surveillance target. Hints of the program were first revealed by Edward Snowden in 2013.

The NSA warrantless surveillance program's end is tied to a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) demand that the agency halt the "about the target" collection before the court would reauthorize a broader surveillance operation, the New York Times first reported Friday.

The NSA has since confirmed the program's demise, adding that it will delete the "vast majority" of messages collected under the program.

The program at issue scoops up all Americans' emails and texts sent not only to foreign surveillance targets but also such communications that include information linked to those targets, such as an email address.

US Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) praised the new limit, saying he plans to offer legislation to codify the change into law.

"This change ends a practice that allowed Americans’ communications to be collected without a warrant merely for mentioning a foreign target," Wyden said. "For years I've repeatedly raised concerns that this amounted to an end-run around the Fourth Amendment. This transparency should be commended."

Through this bulk collection program, the NSA was also gathering messages sent and received domestically that are often bundled together with other messages by internet companies, NYT reported. This aspect of the collection was brought to the attention of the secretive FISC, which has oversight of NSA surveillance requests.

In 2011, a FISC judge said the program violated the Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution, which bars unreasonable search and seizures. To resolve the issue, the NSA said it would separate the bundled messages into a repository that could not be accessed by agency analysts. The NSA's proposal satisfied the FISC, which then allowed the program to continue, NYT reported.

Then, last year, the NSA found that the bundled messages were being accessed by its analysts against rules approved by the FISC. Brought to the FISC's attention, a broader surveillance program would not be renewed by the court until the agency ended the "about the target" collection, NYT reported.

The program was first discovered in 2013, amid disclosures by former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden that revealed the scope of America's vast global surveillance operations. A leaked document in Snowden's cache said the agency "seeks to acquire communications about the target that are not to or from the target."

Opponents of the program say that the collection is invasive, and focuses on the content of a message and not who sent or received it. Government officials have claimed the program is legal and is helpful in finding links to terror suspects or spies.