All About “About” Collection

The National Security Agency announced Friday that it will be halting a controversial form of collection it had been conducting under Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act—so called “about” collection. I had heard such an announcement was slated for next week, but appears to have been bumped up in response to a New York Times story that reported the shift in policy on Friday afternoon. So: What does this mean, and how big a deal is it?

First, what exactly is “about” collection? Normally we think of surveillance as involving the interception of communications to or from the target of surveillance: You designate a particular e-mail address, for example, as a “selector” and then “task” collection of messages to or from that address. That’s roughly how things work with respect to “downstream” (formerly “PRISM”) collection under §702, which is conducted with the direct assistance of U.S. communications platforms like Google (which owns Gmail) or Microsoft (which owns Hotmail). But the NSA also conducts so-called “Upstream” surveillance, vacuuming traffic directly off the Internet backbone—a somewhat messier process that among other things enables them to capture communications that are tranisiting through the United States, but may not be destined for an e-mail server located in the United States. When conducting Upstream surveillance, NSA did not restrict itself to scanning for selectors in e-mail headers—messages sent to or from one of their foreign targets—but also sucked up messages that included a selector in the body of the message. Thus, an e-mail from an American that was neither to nor from a foreign target, but only contained that person’s e-mail address, might be intercepted as a result….

Source: All About “About” Collection | Cato Institute

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