Though much is already known regarding the sheer scope of the National Security Agency’s harvesting of phone data, a new report reveals that the intel agency was interested in fewer than 250 individuals last year.
In the face of mounting concern regarding the NSA's impressive
ability to collect phone data in massive quantities (it has said
it is collecting less than 30 percent of Americans’ call data,
though likely far more in the past) the intelligence agency has
argued that it has sifted through that information judiciously.
According to a transparency report released on Friday – the first instance in which the NSA has disclosed statistics of its surveillance – the NSA performed queries of its phone records haul for 248 “known or presumed persons” in the whole of 2013, the Guardian reports.
"This transparency report is significant because it shows for the first time on an annual basis both targets of business-record orders and the number of US persons specifically targeted with these metadata queries," said Alan Butler, a lawyer with the Electronic Privacy Information Center.
The NSA has previously defended the way in which the agency captures such a large swath of telephony information, arguing that the broad scope allows it to effectively identify data relevant to national security concerns.
“It needs to be the whole haystack,” NSA deputy director John C. Inglis told Congress in October. “It needs to be such that when you make a query you come away confident that you have the whole answer.”
The new transparency report, therefore, seems to confirm at least that the NSA is wholly committed to the approach articulated by Inglis, since 248 queries represents a minuscule amount in comparison to the hundreds of millions of Americans currently being swept in by its electronic surveillance.
Moreover, the NSA’s report also reflects the legal complexity used to justify queries over the vast data trove that it maintains. For example, the agency discloses 1,767 orders made under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, affecting 1,144 “targets” which might include individuals, groups, or organizations comprising several individuals. Interpreted broadly, those orders could amount to thousands, or potentially millions.
The intel agency also includes the number of National Security Letters – which are invoked by the Federal Bureau of Investigation over phone data – though that does not specify the number of Americans that might have been looked at. The NSA simply records that the FBI issued 19,212 such letters in 2013, with 38,832 “requests for information,” reports the Guardian.
Though critics of the NSA’s surveillance programs are likely to find useful information within the agency’s latest efforts at transparency, it is likely only to be seen as a first and incomplete step, and one conflated by the legal framework used by various law enforcement interests that access that data.
"The ODNI report calls itself into question by saying they're providing numbers, but immediately saying those numbers are only true to the extent the intelligence community believes it can release them without compromising sensitive information," said Amie Stepanovich of the digital rights group Access.