Wacky NSA Slide Tells Agents Not To Worry About 'Incidental' Collection Of Info On Americans

from the keep-on-searching... dept

There are so many incredible bits and pieces in Barton Gellman’s Washington Post expose on NSA abuse, that we’ve got a bunch of posts today digging deeper into various parts. For example, Gellman reveals a somewhat wacky presentation slide, complete with a palm tree graphic and with the somewhat folksy title:

Lesson 4: So you got a U.S. Person Information?

And then explains what to do about it. They’re pretty clear that if you’re directly targeting a US person, that’s a problem (and it is, because that’s illegal). If it’s considered “inadvertent,” then you also have to stop, write up an incident report and notify people. That sounds reasonable. But… then there’s the “incidental” section. Here, incidental is described as:

You targeted a legitimate foreign entity and acquired information/communications to/from/about a U.S. Person in your results.

That doesn’t seem particularly “incidental” to me. But, here’s the kicker. While with all the other forms of collection the NSA is told to stop, when it’s “incidental” they’re told:

This does not constitute a USSID SP008 violation, so it does not have to be reported in the IG quarterly.

Note that the IG report is the one that was revealed, listing all of the abuses. Yet, here they seem to be indicating that these “incidental” collections of information (and note that it’s not just “metadata” here, but full “communications” as well) aren’t a real problem. They’re told to “apply… minimization procedures” to limit the info on US persons, but we’ve already seen what a joke those minimization procedures can be.

As Gellman also notes in his report, it appears that the info collected “incidentally” here gets added to NSA databases and can be searched freely:

The NSA uses the term “incidental” when it sweeps up the records of an American while targeting a foreigner or a U.S. person who is believed to be involved in terrorism. Official guidelines for NSA personnel say that kind of incident, pervasive under current practices, “does not constitute a . . . violation” and “does not have to be reported” to the NSA inspector general for inclusion in quarterly reports to Congress. Once added to its databases, absent other restrictions, the communications of Americans may be searched freely.

Just last week, it was discussed that there’s a “loophole” that, according to Senator Wyden, allows for “warrantless searches for the phone calls or emails of law-abiding Americans.” Who knows if this is that particular loophole, but it does seem like a fairly large loop. Just say it’s “incidental” and boom, search away.

Remember, the IG report also reveals that a “programming error” meant that a ton of phone calls placed from Washington DC were “intercepted” by the NSA (because someone typed in 202, DC’s area code, instead of 20, Egypt’s country code) — and that mistake wasn’t reported. That doesn’t seem “incidental” to me.

Another example:

In dozens of cases, NSA personnel made careless use of the agency’s extraordinary powers, according to individual auditing reports. One team of analysts in Hawaii, for example, asked a system called DISHFIRE to find any communications that mentioned both the Swedish manufacturer Ericsson and “radio” or “radar” — a query that could just as easily have collected on people in the United States as on their Pakistani military target.

Think about that for a second. Any communication that mentions both Ericsson and “radio” or “radar.” Just for the hell of it, I just did a search on my own email account for the terms “Ericsson” and “radio” and it came back with a ton of results, including 47 from just 2013. In just my mailbox. Many of those are from various wireless news letters or PR announcements, but still…

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Comments on “Wacky NSA Slide Tells Agents Not To Worry About 'Incidental' Collection Of Info On Americans”

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18 Comments
Mark Harrill (profile) says:

System working as designed

Remember, the IG report also reveals that a “programming error” meant that a ton of phone calls placed from Washington DC were “intercepted” by the NSA (because someone typed in 202, DC’s area code, instead of 20, Egypt’s country code) — and that mistake wasn’t reported. That doesn’t seem “incidental” to me.

When programming applications, if data validation isn’t included its not an accident, its either by design or lack of funds. In this case, the NSA probably spec’d the system to be as free from restriction as possible so agents have maximum flexibility in running their searches. Therefore the program was never intended to be restrictive and subject to oversight, instead the NSA planned the system to be as permissive as possible. Also, agents have to report the “accidental” search results, how come the system isn’t automatically finding these kind of results and creating a report? Sickening…

out_of_the_blue says:

Mike, Google has already fully indexed your email!

“I just did a search on my own email account” — Your italicized notion that it’s “your own” is laughable! After you re-wrote the story jeering at those who object to Google arguing there’s no expectation of privacy!

By focus on NSA you’re tacitly telling us “not to worry” about Google. But what’s the diff between the NSA’s unconcern about privacy and your unconcern regarding Google except for scale?

Losing privacy for the benefit of “commercial” entities doesn’t reduce the damage of that loss.

lfroen (profile) says:

Re: Mike, Google has already fully indexed your email!

Ah, It’s you again. Let’s say for argument sake that Mike, indeed, is Google employee. Now what?
Yes, he won’t tell bad things about them. Never ever. Now, unless YOU want to employ him – can you shut the fuck up, please.
Since I don’t live in US, I don’t really care about this NSA scandal. And yes, Google scanning all emails for commercial purposes. Don’t care either.
When I have something to hide – I don’t post in on Facebook and don’t send it over email.

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