The U.S. surveillance state, or at least the parts the public knows about, keeps getting bigger. Initial leaks by Ed Snowden indicated that the National Security Agency was collecting telephone metadata and had a program called PRISM to seek information from the servers of certain major Internet companies. Last month, the Guardian reported the existence of XKeyscore, an NSA program that allows NSA analysts to intercept the contents of e-mail and other online communications. But previous reporting had suggested that the NSA's Internet interception capabilities were concentrated outside the borders of the United States.
A new report by the Wall Street Journal casts doubt on that comforting notion. According to the Journal, the NSA "has the capacity to reach roughly 75% of all U.S. Internet traffic." And while the NSA is only supposed to "target" foreigners, the NSA sometimes "retains the written content of e-mails sent between citizens within the U.S."
The Journal says the NSA relies on extensive collaboration with domestic telecommunications companies to get access to Internet traffic. "The programs, code-named Blarney, Fairview, Oakstar, Lithium and Stormbrew, among others, filter and gather information at major telecommunications companies." Filtering occurs at more than a dozen "major Internet junctions."
These programs have a long history. The NSA was already intercepting international Internet traffic before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. After those terrorist attacks, the government expanded its surveillance activities to include more collection points inside the United States. One of those collection points became the target of an Electronic Frontier Foundation lawsuit after an AT&T whistleblower revealed the existence of a secret, NSA-controlled room inside an AT&T facility in San Francisco.
Like the other NSA programs revealed in recent weeks, this one involves minimal judicial oversight. Surveillance must be "covered by a broad court order" under the FISA Amendments Act. But that 2008 law doesn't require judicial scrutiny of individual surveillance targets. Instead, judges bless broad surveillance programs, leaving decisions about specific surveillance targets up to the NSA itself.
And sometimes surveillance activities can be quite extensive. For example, the NSA engaged in dragnet surveillance during the 2002 Winter Olympics. "The Federal Bureau of Investigation and NSA arranged with Qwest Communications International Inc. to use intercept equipment for a period of less than six months around the time of the event," the Journal reports. "It monitored the content of all email and text communications in the Salt Lake City area."