The Washington Post has reportedly obtained documents from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden showing that the NSA broke privacy rules covered under the Fourth Amendment nearly 3,000 times between April 2011 and March 2012. These documents supposedly show a level of detail and analysis that's not even available to Congress or the secret court that spearheads the controversial surveillance.
According to the paper, most of these "incidents" involved unauthorized surveillance of Americans or foreign intelligence targets located in the U.S. They ranged from significant violations of the law to simple typos that unintentionally pulled up emails and phone calls of innocent civilians. One instance even reveals that the NSA purposely refused to disclose that it mistakenly intercepted a "large number" of calls placed from Washington due to an area code typo.
When asked about these critical typo errors, the NSA stated that it's a human-run agency "operating in a complex environment with a number of different regulatory regimes, so at times we find ourselves on the wrong side of the line." The agency also stated that it attempts to identify problems at the earliest possible moment, implement mitigation measures "whenever possible," and drive the numbers down.
The actual number of incidents during that 12 month period was 2,776 in which the agency had no authority to collect, store, have access to or distribute legally protected communications. The paper said many incidents were the result of violations of standard procedure and failures of due diligence while the more serious incidents blatantly violated court orders.
"You can look at it as a percentage of our total activity that occurs each day," said an unnamed NSA official. "You look at a number in absolute terms that looks big, and when you look at it in relative terms, it looks a little different."
Unfortunately, the number of incidents could be even bigger. The current group of 2,776 only pertains to the NSA's Fort Meade headquarters and other facilities in the Washington area, and doesn't include other NSA-based operating units and regional collection centers. The rate of infractions also increased throughout 2011 and 2012, so there's no telling how many more incidents have taken place since March 2012.
The Washington Post report continues on spilling classified information across four pages. Meanwhile, NSA director General Keith Alexander said that he plans to eliminate around 90 percent of its system administrators to reduce the number of people who have access to secret information. He said that using technology to automate much of the work that's currently done by NSA employees and contractors will ultimately make the firm's networks more secure and defensible.
"We trust people with data," Alexander said. "At the end of the day it’s all about trust. If they misuse that trust, they can cause huge damage. At the end of the day it’s about people and trust and I think we can get that almost perfect but we can’t solve that issue."