US National Security Agency

Snowden details how NSA can search e-mails, calls without warrant

Latest revelation by Edward Snowden details loophole that allows agency to search for e-mails and phone calls of law-abiding Americans

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 August, 2013, 4:23am

The National Security Agency (NSA) has a secret backdoor into its vast databases under a legal authority enabling it to search for US citizens' e-mail and phone calls without a warrant, according to a top-secret document passed to the London-based The Guardian newspaper by Edward Snowden.

The previously undisclosed rule change allows NSA operatives to hunt for individual Americans' communications using their name or other identifying information. Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, said the NSA's authorities provided loopholes that allowed "warrantless searches for the phone calls or e-mails of law-abiding Americans".

The intelligence data is being gathered under Section 702 of the of the Fisa Amendments Act (FAA), which gives the NSA authority to target without warrant the communications of foreign targets, who must be non-US citizens and outside the US at the point of collection.

The communications of Americans in direct contact with foreign targets can also be collected without a warrant and the intelligence agencies acknowledge that purely domestic communications can also be inadvertently swept into its databases. That process is known as "incidental collection" in surveillance parlance.

Secret minimisation procedures dating from 2009, published in June by The Guardian, revealed that the NSA could make use of any "inadvertently acquired" information on US persons under a defined range of circumstances, including if they held usable intelligence, threat of harm to people or property, are encrypted or are believed to contain any information relevant to cybersecurity.

At that stage, however, the rules did not appear to allow for searches of collected data relating to specific US persons.

Der Spiegel, citing documents leaked by Snowden, reported yesterday that China, Russia, Iran, Pakistan and North Korea were the top surveillance targets of US authorities.

The European Union is ranked as a key priority, the magazine reported, citing classified document, dated April 2013. Germany, France and Japan were considered of mid-level interest.

On Friday, US President Barack Obama announced new oversight measures for the surveillance programmes revealed by Snowden but gave no indication the government would end the massive collection of information about phone calls and e-mails of Americans and those abroad.

Wyden, speaking after Obama's press conference, voiced concern that Obama did not address another provision known as Section 702.

Asked whether the steps on surveillance he was taking amounted to a vindication of Snowden's leaks, Obama rejected that notion. He said that Snowden should have gone to the congressional intelligence committees with any concerns he had about surveillance.

"I don't think Mr Snowden was a patriot," Obama said.

Obama said he called for a review of the secret surveillance programmes before details of documents Snowden leaked to reporters were publicised in June.

But the president admitted that Snowden's disclosures had prompted a faster and more passionate response.

Speaking in Hong Kong on Friday, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales expected legal challenges to emerge against the surveillance programmes.

"Now that [the existence of these programmes] has been revealed, we're going to see a lot of court cases filed, and I believe these will get docketed in the Supreme Court sooner rather than later," Wales told the Sunday Morning Post.

Additional reporting by Bien Perez, Associated Press, Reuters, Agence France-Presse