The National Security Agency (NSA) has announced it will stop a controversial surveillance program under which it collected internet communications between individuals not under investigation merely because they mentioned a foreign intelligence target.
Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) allows the NSA and other members of the United States Intelligence Community to conduct surveillance on specific foreign targets located outside the United States. Under Section 702, NSA collects two types of internet communications: “downstream” and “upstream.” Downstream communications are those “to or from” a foreign intelligence target, while “upstream” communications are those “to, from or about” a foreign intelligence target. The NSA’s change of course applies only to “upstream” communications that are solely “about” a foreign intelligence target—that is, the NSA will no longer collect communications, for example, that include a targeted e-mail address in the text or body of the e-mail, even though the e-mail is between two persons who are not themselves targets of NSA surveillance. According to the NSA, this change is “designed to retain the upstream collection that provides the greatest value to national security while reducing the likelihood that the NSA will acquire communications of U.S. persons or others who are not in direct contact with one of the Agency’s foreign intelligence targets.”
In addition to changes in its collection practices, the NSA also announced that it will delete the vast majority of previously acquired upstream internet communications as soon as practicable. According to a statement released by the NSA, the decision to alter its collection practices was the result of a “comprehensive review of mission needs, current technological constraints, United States person privacy interests and certain difficulties in implementation.”