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Ordinary Web users reportedly snared in NSA surveillance

In 9 out of 10 cases, account holders in a cache of intercepted communications were not the intended targets, according to the Washington Post.

Declan McCullagh/CNET

The vast majority of Internet communications swept up by the National Security Agency during surveillance of digital networks were not from intended targets, according to the Washington Post.

A four-month study of a cache of intercepted conversations provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed that 9 out of 10 account holders in the cache "were not the intended surveillance targets but were caught in a net the agency had cast for somebody else," the newspaper wrote. Many of those unintended targets were ordinary Internet users, including Americans, according to a review of 160,000 intercepted emails and instant message conversations, the paper reported.

Nearly half of the files reviewed contained names, emails, and other information that the agency identified as belonging to US citizens or residents. While the NSA masked more than 65,000 references, the Post said it found nearly 900 references that could be linked to US citizens or residents.

The Post did not describe the conversations in detail but did say that the cache contained "fresh revelations about a secret overseas nuclear project, double-dealing by an ostensible ally, a military calamity that befell an unfriendly power, and the identities of aggressive intruders into U.S. computer networks."

The surveillance led to the capture of terrorism suspects, including Umar Patek, a suspect in a 2002 terrorist bombing on the Indonesian island of Bali. However, many files, marked as useless by analysts, have a voyeuristic quality, describing intimate issues such as love, illicit sexual relations, political and religious conversions, and financial anxieties, the Post said.

The foreign surveillance agency may legally target only foreign nationals located overseas unless a warrant is obtained from a special surveillance court. In 2008, section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act authorized the controversial PRISM program to access non-US residents' emails, social networking, and cloud-stored data.

CNET has contacted the NSA for comment and will update this report when we learn more.