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NSA ditches controversial aspect of its spy program

US intelligence agency will stop scooping up text and email exchanges between Americans and people overseas that include mention of a foreigner under surveillance.

The NSA is altering its email collection program.
The NSA is altering its email collection program.
Getty Images

Americans' emails and texts may soon get a little more private.

The US National Security Agency plans to stop gathering Americans' texts and emails with contacts overseas that include mention of a foreigner under surveillance.

The government has argued that such surveillance is necessary to find people with links to terrorism and other activities that threaten security. But advocates of privacy and civil liberties have argued that it violates Americans' rights.

The collection is part of the NSA's controversial Upstream program, which was first revealed to the public when former NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed its existence to journalists in 2013. The program is legally sanctioned by Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act, a bill that's up for renewal this year. Privacy-minded lawmakers are preparing to fight for changes to the program.

For now, the program will scoop up a little bit less information on Americans.

"After a comprehensive review of mission needs, current technological constraints, United States person privacy interests, and certain difficulties in implementation, NSA has decided to stop some of its activities conducted under Section 702," the NSA said in a statement Friday.

According to The New York Times, these "difficulties in implementation" could refer to problems the NSA was having weeding out irrelevant emails from its collections, as required by law. This was logistically difficult to do, because internet service providers tend to "bundle" up communications in chunks of data and send them across the internet together.

The NSA's bulk collection of internet communications will continue, and this can include any emails sent by Americans that leave the United States.

"While the NSA's policy change will curb some of the most egregious abuses under the statute, it is at best a partial fix," Neema Singh Guliani, legislative counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement. "Congress should take steps to ensure such practices are never resurrected and end policies that permit broad, warrantless surveillance."

First published Apr. 28, 2017, 11:46 a.m. PT.
Update, 12:25 p.m.: Adds comment from the NSA and background information.