The Obama administration secretly expanded the National Security Agency's authority to conduct warrantless searches of U.S. Internet traffic for signs of cyberattacks originating from overseas, it has been reported.
Articles published by The New York Times and ProPublica, both citing documents provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, say Justice Department lawyers wrote two memos to the spy agency in 2012 permitting its agents to search U.S. Internet cables for evidence of malicious online activity without obtaining individual warrants. Such a bypass involving Internet users on U.S. soil would seemingly go against the protocol laid out by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The 1978 law was amended in 2008 to allow warrantless surveillance, but only when authorities were targeting non-U.S. citizens abroad.
According to The New York Times, the government memo only allowed for the monitoring of cybersignatures, described by the newspaper as “patterns associated with computer intrusions” linked to foreign governments. But it was reported that the documents note that NSA sought to monitor suspects even when a link to foreign governments could not be established.
Documents reportedly show that at least one NSA lawyer was worried that a lot of information about innocent Americans would be incidentally collected as a result. He proposed storing the cyberdata in such a way that analysts working on unrelated issues could not query it, a 2010 training document showed.
But it's not clear whether that ever happened.
The NSA's collection of foreign intelligence on American Internet infrastructure was not addressed in the USA Freedom Act, the law enacted this week that will curtail the agency's collection of American calling records.
The passing of that act on Tuesday marked the first time since the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon that Washington's ability to spy on Americans has been rolled back.
In the immediate aftermath of that incident, "Americans were afraid and not really concerned" about the sweeping intelligence-gathering powers embedded in the Patriot Act, said Neema Singh Guliani, a legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union focusing on privacy and surveillance issues.
"Now we are starting to swing the pendulum the other way and really having a conversation that we should have had a decade ago about how to constrain intelligence authority and ensure that our national security programs are not violating fundamental rights," she told Agence France-Presse.