A halt to the National Security Agency’s (NSA) controversial surveillance program known as “about” collection is now in place. What this program aimed to do was to gain access to emails and messages that contained information about foreign surveillance targets. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) made the ruling to halt the “about” tactic as there was no way it could comply with the constitutional rights of Americans.
The NSA Ordered to Halt “About” Tactics
The argument against the surveillance tactic is that the NSA can read communications of Americans without a warrant. Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act allows the NSA to spy on foreign targets by storing and reading their communications. Many Americans end up caught up in this dragnet for different reasons. This removes the presumption of innocence before proof of guilt. If an American is innocent, then the constitution is supposed to protect their rights to privacy.
What is the “About” Tactic?
“About” surveillance searches the NSA database, looking for references to foreign targets. If or when references pop up, the email or message is then read without a warrant. The FISC attempted to put procedures in place to minimize the privacy issue. But it does not look like the NSA was able to comply in any meaningful way.
“The NSA has secretly spied on Americans’ Internet communications for years, continuously searching through the contents of emails and web-browsing activities in bulk,” said Patrick Toomey, an ACLU attorney who works on surveillance issues. “This kind of warrant-free, suspicion-free surveillance is exactly what the Fourth Amendment prohibits. Putting an end to this spying is an important step, but it is only a start to the broader reforms of Section 702 that are badly needed to safeguard Americans’ privacy.”
The fact that Americans can be a target for mentioning a foreign target caused some in government to be vocal critics of the program. A journalist reporting on a story, a news junkie talking about someone in the news, a business person who has nothing to do with a person outside of a business setting, or someone speaking to an individual who has the same name as a target could have their emails stored and read.
“This change ends a practice that allowed Americans’ communications to be collected without a warrant merely for mentioning a foreign target,” Senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon said. “For years I have repeatedly raised concerns that this amounted to an end-run around the Fourth Amendment. This transparency should be commended.”