NSA taps into e-mail, text communication to and from U.S. -- report

That's the claim from unidentified government officials who say that the NSA attempts to keep as many innocent Americans out of the collection process as possible.

Don Reisinger
Former CNET contributor Don Reisinger is a technology columnist who has covered everything from HDTVs to computers to Flowbee Haircut Systems. Besides his work with CNET, Don's work has been featured in a variety of other publications including PC World and a host of Ziff-Davis publications.
Don Reisinger
2 min read

The National Security Agency (NSA) is collecting e-mails and other text communications that are sent internationally or are received from foreign sources, a new report claims.

The NSA's e-mail data-collection efforts include both those who communicate with potential overseas targets, as well as anyone who might cite a particular individual or something even partially related to that person, The New York Times reported on Thursday, citing intelligence officials with knowledge of the agency's work.

The NSA has long conceded that it's tracking the communications of foreigners who might pose a threat to the U.S. However, the officials' revelation to the Times is the first acknowledgement on the part of the intelligence community that ostensibly innocent communications with people overseas are being collected.

According to the Times, the NSA is acting within the legal framework outlined in the FISA Amendments Act of 2008, which paved the way for intelligence officials to monitor domestic communication without a warrant as long as the individual they were targeting was not a U.S. citizen. The sources also confirmed to the Times that no voice communication is intercepted as part of this data-collection.

The NSA has found itself in some hot water over the last several weeks, since Edward Snowden, a former contractor with the agency, revealed wide-ranging information about the government's spying efforts. Snowden, who is currently in Russia under temporary asylum, has been hit with espionage charges by the U.S. and has had his passport revoked.

According to the Times' sources, text communications sent overseas or arriving from foreign nations run through a computer system within the NSA that analyzes the messages for keywords. If particular keywords pop up, the message is sent to a human analyst for review. All other communications are immediately deleted and cannot be retrieved. The extent of the data collection is not clear.

The Times' sources say that the keywords are designed to limit the number of innocent Americans who might get caught in the NSA's net, and when communications are inadvertently obtained, higher-up government officials are alerted.

So, what's the point of all of the data collection? There's no easy answer. According to the officials, the data gathered in the e-mail communications hasn't directly taken down a terror plot. Whether the data was used to bolster the cases made against certain individuals, however, is unknown.