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NSA Responds To Criticism Over Surveillance Programs

NSA says it only touches about 1 percent of online communications in the U.S.

The NSA has hit back after mounting criticism about its ability to intercept Web communications domestically, claiming that reports of its capabilities are "inaccurate and misleading."

The response follows a Wall Street Journal report stating the agency has the capacity to reach "roughly 75 percent of all U.S. Internet traffic."

According to The Wall Street Journal story, the NSA's filtering of the Web is carried out with telecom companies and designed to look for messages that either originate abroad, are sent abroad, or are entirely foreign and just passing through the U.S. But sources told the paper that the system's reach increases the chance that domestic communications will be accidentally intercepted.

"Press reports based on an article published in...[the] Wall Street Journal mischaracterize aspects of NSA's data collection activities conducted under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act," the agency says. "The NSA does not sift through and have unfettered access to 75 percent of the United States' online communications."

"In its foreign intelligence mission, and using all its authorities, NSA "touches" about 1.6 percent and analysts only look at .00004 percent of the world's Internet traffic," the NSA continues. "The assistance from the providers, which is compelled by the law, is the same activity that has been previously revealed as part of Section 702 collection and PRISM."

The agency's programs have been a lightning rod for controversy. Wednesday, the Director of National Intelligence declassified several documents related to the NSA's programs.

Among the revelations is that the NSA -- which is supposed to be focused on foreign intelligence -- likely collected tens of thousands of emails and other electronic communications between Americans every year due to its methods.

In a declassified opinion from Sept. 25, 2012, FISA Court judge John D. Bates wrote that the volume and nature of the information the government was collecting was "fundamentally different from what the court had been led to believe."

"Under the circumstances, the court is unable to find that, as applied to MCTs [multi-communication transactions] in the manner proposed by the government, NSA's minimization procedures are 'reasonably designed in light of the purpose and technique of the particular surveillance to minimize the…retention…of nonpublicly available information'" of American citizens without their consent," he wrote in separate opinion Oct. 3, 2011.

"Today the NSA's compliance program is directly supported by over three hundred personnel, which is a four-fold increase in just four years," Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper wrote in a letter announcing the declassified documents. "This increase was designed to address changes in technology and authorities enacted as part of the FISA Amendments Act to confront evolving threats. It is also a reflection of the commitment on the part of the intelligence community…to ensuring that these extraordinary intelligence activities are conducted responsibly and subject to the rule of law."

Have a comment on this story? Please click "Add Your Comment" below. If you'd like to contact Dark Reading's editors directly, send us a message. Brian Prince is a freelance writer for a number of IT security-focused publications. Prior to becoming a freelance reporter, he worked at eWEEK for five years covering not only security, but also a variety of other subjects in the tech industry. Before that, he worked as a ... View Full Bio

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