NSA's data reach greater than first thought, says report

The secretive agency has built a surveillance system that can reach three-quarters of all U.S. Internet traffic, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Image: National Security Agency

The U.S. National Security Agency's surveillance network reaches far further into the lives of ordinary folk than first thought, according to a report by The Wall Street Journal.

Although the agency is not legally allowed to spy on U.S. citizens, thanks to Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures, the NSA has a system that can reach roughly 75 percent of all U.S. Internet traffic in efforts to acquire foreign intelligence.

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This comes just days after the NSA said in a memo [PDF] that the agency "touches" 1.6 percent of the Internet.

In some cases, email content sent citizens in the U.S. is retained, and domestic phone call data is filtered by the agency, the report says.

These revelations, if proven true, would be reminiscent of claims made by Mark Klein in 2006, who worked as an AT&T technician in San Francisco. Klein blew the whistle on the NSA's involvement in domestic wiretapping, claiming the agency diverted Internet traffic through a splitter cabinet in a secure room, dubbed "Room 641A," which was to be used only by NSA personnel.

This kind of activity requires the legal complicity under various laws, including the Patriot Act and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), to allow the government to tap into the cables of telecoms companies.

Investigative reporting by ZDNet in June  detailed how Tier 1 fiber companies were likely ordered under law to allow vast amounts of data belonging to U.S. citizens and foreign nationals to be wiretapped.

BLARNEY, which was noted in the first few slides relating to the PRISM system  leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, was first established with AT&T, the paper said. The phone giant declined to comment to the Journal.

It's understood FAIRVIEW, OAKSTAR, LITHIUM, and STORMBREW are similar programs set up at different phone exchanges to filter content running through their systems. The NSA said in the aforementioned memo, "While some have tried to characterize the involvement of such providers as separate programs, that is not accurate," hinting that they are the same program but designed for different providers.

In a statement to sister site CNET, the agency said:

NSA's signals intelligence mission is centered on defeating foreign adversaries who aim to harm the country. We defend the United States from such threats while fiercely working to protect the privacy rights of U.S. persons. It's not either/or. It's both."