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1 May, 2019 03:57

NSA 'unmasking' of American surveillance targets peaked in 2018, new report says

NSA 'unmasking' of American surveillance targets peaked in 2018, new report says

The National Security Agency shared the names of almost 17,000 US residents whose data was slurped up under FISA surveillance with other federal agencies in 2018, which makes a 75 percent increase in so-called “unmaskings.”

Names of people or entities caught in the NSA’s electronic dragnet are normally redacted in intelligence reports to protect their privacy from being violated further, unless requested by other federal agencies. It is illegal to unmask individuals for political purposes or to leak classified information, or for any other reason aside from “national security” – though this rationale has proven extremely flexible in the past.

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The explosion in privacy violations in 2018 was for our own good, according to Alex Joel, head of civil liberties and transparency at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which released the report. Joel said the agencies requesting the unmasking were just trying to find out who had been victimized by foreign intelligence agencies’ cyberattacks.

FISA surveillance is a beloved technique of intelligence agencies because it doesn’t require individual warrants to collect massive amounts of data on the communications of American citizens. While FISA was originally designed to collect foreign intelligence information – hence the “Foreign” in Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act – targeting international calls and emails from individuals believed to be security threats, like much else in the national security apparatus it has also ensnared hundreds of thousands of Americans. This allegedly includes President Donald Trump, who accused his predecessor Barack Obama of using FISA to spy on his campaign during the 2016 election.

The ODNI report suggests about 2,600 fewer Americans were “accidentally” swept up in FISA surveillance last year than in 2017, though the number of foreigners surveilled increased by 35,000. About 100 million fewer metadata records were collected as well, though the totals were affected when the NSA supposedly “purged” its database upon learning it was collecting information it wasn’t authorized to collect.

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The NSA has reportedly recommended the metadata-collection program be discontinued altogether, claiming the “logistical and legal burdens” of keeping the program outweigh any intelligence benefits. A national security adviser to House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said the NSA hasn’t made use of the program since June and confirmed that the agency doesn’t plan to seek renewal of congressional authorization for the program when it expires in December.