The NSA Dumped its Spying Violations When No One Was Paying Much Attention

By Meg Neal on at

The U.S. government has released proof that it repeatedly spied on American citizens without being allowed to—and most people probably missed it.

The National Security Administration finally dumped a heap of redacted documents revealing the surveillance violations made over the last decade. Yay for transparency! Of course, it released them midday on Christmas Eve, when basically no one would be paying attention to the internet or in the mood to think about Orwellian government surveillance for at least the next 30 hours.

But, here it is, a collection of all the violations reported to the president's Intelligence Oversight Board between 2001 and 2013, which the NSA declassified and made public after an ACLU lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act forced its hand.

The heavy redacted documents show a mix of surveillance cockups, most of which the agency blames on technical errors or human mistakes, like when an agent accidentally queries the wrong term or fudges the target's name. Or, as happened several times, private communication data was sent to a recipient not authorised to receive it (and subsequently deleted) or insecurely stored and then accessed after it was supposed to be destroyed, reported Bloomberg.

Which, yeah, in 10 years of routinely siphoning up millions of people's web and phone communications, there are going to be some mistakes. But we all know it's not all that innocent. In fact, the NSA fully admits that several of the violations (12 that it owns up to) were intentional—the agency blatantly ignored the legal policy—say, in one a familiar example, to spy on their spouses or ex-girlfriends.

Other errors were more nuanced, and it reveals the extent of the agency's overreach. Like when a broad query (overly broad queries are supposed to be prohibited) inadvertently sweeps up innocent Americans' personal data even though it's targeting a foreigner. In other words, the agency gets hold of personal information it's not authorised to have, but obtains it in a basically legal manner.

The way the oversight process works now, the NSA is essentially off the hook for these violations so long as it reports them to the board during regularly scheduled reviews. The agency points to this built-in transparency as a sign it's taking compliance seriously: "NSA accounts for all identified errors and violations, no matter how slight, in its oversight reporting process," it wrote in a summary accompanying the documents.

But that logic doesn't do much to keep the intrusive surveillance programs in check. And though the post-Snowden uproar over government snooping and online privacy has prompted several calls for better oversight, little has been done to curb intelligence agency's broad and largely unchecked powers to spy on Americans. Which, if the Christmas Eve surprise is any indication, the NSA knows all too well.