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NSA Report: Amount of Data Under Surveillance Greatly Exaggerated

The New York Times used a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit to obtain a National Security Agency report from 2015, in which the agency’s Inspector General looked at those controversial Internet surveillance programs and determined they are far less extensive than widely suspected.

The Times noted that much of the recently-declassified report is still redacted, but uncensored passages “appear to indicate how the system works.” In essence, the report says that the government gives information about specific foreign targets to Internet companies, and the companies only turn over messages containing the “selectors” for those specific targets.

Until now, criticism of the NSA programs revealed by defector Edward Snowden has presumed the government was indiscriminately monitoring nearly all Internet communications. This sinister impression was reinforced by some elusive answers from tech companies when the story broke and, as the New York Times notes, by the government using “language that leaves it ambiguous whether the telecommunications companies or the government is filtering and scanning the raw Internet data.”

It is further noted that most of the documentation that would decisively settle questions about how the surveillance program operates remain classified.

Critics of NSA surveillance will hardly consider this IG report a “never mind, no big deal” answer to their concerns.

For one thing, as ACLU lawyer Patrick Toomey told the New York Times, constitutional privacy issues remain if Internet companies are sifting through data and deciding which message match the government’s surveillance criteria, rather than government agents sifting through everything and making the determination themselves.

He compared it to a phone company listening to everyone’s telephone communications and deciding which recorded calls to hand over to government agents — not exactly a comforting scenario. Of course, it would be virtually impossible for any telephone company to actively monitor every single voice communication, before the advent of modern computer systems, which is the core issue behind Surveillance State debates. Until the Snowden story broke, most Americans probably didn’t realize the extent of surveillance that was now possible, and our wiretapping laws were written when it was inconceivable.

It is also noted that court cases related to NSA surveillance have frequently been dismissed because litigation would reveal too much sensitive information, meaning many details of these programs remain secret, and the secrecy is preventing the American people from knowing whether their Fourth Amendment rights have been compromised.

Even the redacted portions of the Inspector General report could contain details that would challenge the conclusion that direct government surveillance is not as widespread as originally believed. It won’t be surprising to hear NSA critics assail the IG report as a whitewash. The Surveillance State debate is far from over.

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